A Long Journey to Become a Parent-To-Be (Part 3)

Holly Kearl
Nov 10, 2017 · 20 min read

With overpopulation being a real concern and child neglect and abuse a grave reality, it was important to me that if my life-partner Mark and I were going to become parents, that we open our home and hearts to at least one child through adoption. My altruistic and optimistic hopes were dashed through the realities of the adoption process. I know adoptions successfully happen all the time, but I still feel disillusioned and betrayed by our experiences.

Expanding on the timeline in “A Long Journey to Become a Parent-To-Be (Part 2),” these are barriers we initially faced in trying to adopt in 2015 and then some of the main points of our experiences with a domestic infant adoption process from 2016 to 2017 and why we ended our adoption plan.

PART 1: BARRIERS

Barrier #1: No Direct Foster to Adopt Program

When we began attending adoption and fostering info sessions in spring 2015, we were discouraged to learn that Virginia no longer offers a foster to adoption path. When kids are fostered with you, the state will constantly try to pull them out and place them with blood relatives. While there are times when a child is able to stay with the foster parent/s and eventually be adopted, there is no way to guarantee that. Since we wanted the experience of being able to raise a child long-term and we wanted to provide a child with a permanent, secure home, this did not seem like the right path for us. I have much admiration for those who are able to have kids come and go from their homes, but I thought it would be too hard to bear.

Barrier #2: It’s Expensive to Adopt an Infant

After meeting with a local agency, we were disappointed to learn that a domestic infant adoption could cost around (and even more than) $40,000 (this was true at several agencies we explored). I don’t know how many people have an extra $40,000 laying around, but at that time, we sure didn’t.

We looked into older child adoption. Even though most of these children would undoubtedly have faced neglect, abuse and/or have special needs and it was a bit intimidating to feel like we would be equipped to help them, I wanted to try. My older sister was born with disabilities and so special needs did not scare me. I had volunteered for years with sexual assault and domestic abuse survivors, so I felt equipped to know what issues could arise and what resources were available. Mark was less sure as he did not have these experiences, but he agreed that I could start filling out an application form to start the process to adopt.

A big downside for us was that we both love little kids, but the youngest “older child” I saw listed on the website was around 10 years old. Suddenly having a middle or high school student felt a little overwhelming and missing out on the kid years was a sad, but the infant adoption cost was so high, this seemed like the best choice.

Barrier #3: You Must Be Married to Adopt Together

Within the first few questions of the application, I was shocked to realize that in the state of Virginia, we couldn’t adopt together if we were not married. In other words, only one of us could be the legal guardian and the other would just be listed as a second adult living in the household, like a roommate. This was not enough. We wanted to be 50–50 parents with equal rights and responsibilities. I was mad about this law, especially since we’d been together for 12 years and living together for 10, which is longer than many marriages. But while I felt this was completely wrong and unfair, I chose not to pursue activism/legal action to try to change the law. Fortunately, gay marriage was legalized nationally the same month and as that was one of the reasons why we had not married, we decided we would get married. It was the easier option than putting up a (righteous, justified) fight.

Two months later, we eloped and I completed the application. It even required me to upload a photo of the marriage certificate to prove we were married.

Barrier #4: Inflexible Required Training

Before anyone can proceed with the older child adoption route, the local agency requires prospective parents to attend five Saturday sessions of training an hour away from us in Baltimore. In looking up their next dates, I saw I would have to miss one Saturday for a trip I had to do to start a nine-month contract. If I missed the trip, I’d miss out on the contract which was a significant part of my income that year. Even though Mark could attend all five sessions and I could attend four, they refused to let us move forward. The next five Saturdays were not offered until 2016, so we were stuck with nothing to do but wait. While we waited, we decided to pursue infertility treatments and did so from Oct. 2015 to June 2016. (See “A Long Journey…Part 2”)

PART 2: BEGINNING THE ADOPTION PROCESS

During the summer of 2016, we re-focused on adoption. After going through infertility treatments, we realized how strongly we wanted to have the chance to raise a child from a young age. We were not set on an infant and were open to older babies and toddlers too, but we learned that there are rarely kids that age who are in need of adoption. So, we realized, we would need to do the more expensive infant adoption route after all.

In July, we had a phone call with an acquaintance of mine who had adopted about a year earlier. She had a really good experience with the agency and said she’d put us in touch and give us a good reference. I felt really excited and hopeful, especially as she said they took their baby home with them less than two months after the signed the initial paperwork with the agency. Considering we’d been trying to become parents for 3.5 years, a fast process was attractive.

As discussed in “A Long Journey…Part 2,” I was lucky to have a big UN contract assignment offered to me and the extra income from that (if I could manage to work a full-time and part-time job) plus our savings would cover the fees. We needed to wait until I received my first paycheck though and due to UN bureaucracy and delays, that wasn’t until November. But in November, we signed a contract with the national agency my friend recommended and I filled out another adoption application with the local agency so we could go through them to do our home-study.

Home-study

The local agency was fine. I said I wanted to work fast and the social worker they assigned to us said she’d work as fast as we could. This gives you a sense for how much work was involved. But I felt like I was born to do this. I am well-organized, good with deadlines and like a challenge. So we (mainly I) got it all done in record time.

The hardest parts for me were having the social worker visit our home three times and examine every room and grill us on our life and our relationship and our potential parenting practices. Mark and I each had to write a seven-page autobiography of our life and then she questioned us about things like our relationship with our parents while growing up and now. The hardest moment for me was when she began pressing me to talk more about my older sister who died. I pinched my finger under the table to keep from crying.

The social worker then took all of the information we provided and wrote up a report. Ultimately, she gave us glowing reviews and we were approved to pursue an adoption by mid-December, a mere six weeks later.

During that time though, we kept thinking about how unfair it was that we had to be minutely examined when any (fertile) person could just get pregnant and never have to do a FBI background check, share their DMV records, get a physical and character references or have a stranger examine their house. Although, we also realized it’s too bad that can’t be enforced… it’s too bad everyone who is about to become parents DOESN’T have to go through all that. In fact, some things were really useful to us. For instance, we had to account for all of our finances and show our monthly income and that was something we hadn’t done in years. We both have multiple bank and savings accounts and didn’t actually know how much money we collectively had until we did that, and we also identified some areas where we could cut down on monthly spending. Imagine if every parent-to-be was forced to do the same.

Transracial Adoption (Part 1)

I was also grateful for the two training days we were required to attend as part of the home-study process. One training focused on adoption basics and things like an open versus a closed adoption and how to respect your child’s adoption story and how to handle relationships with the birth parents.

The second training was about transracial adoption. In our area, there are more infants and children of color than white and more white adoptive parents than parents of color. That in of itself is worth a whole other article.

During this session, we learned a lot about the challenges our differing skin colors could illicit, such as people not knowing or believing we are a family, and of course the racism our children of color will face growing up. With Trump getting elected just weeks earlier and an explosion of racist hate speech and acts immediately following, it felt even more likely that racism would be a reality. I worried about how to handle it in a productive and mature way when my knee jerk reaction was feeling anger. I also worried about persons of color not thinking the child should be with white parents, that we were not the right people to be raising the child. I worried that we weren’t equipped enough to help a child of color.

In the session we also talked about strategies for welcoming our children of color. For instance, ensuring there are kids and persons of color featured in their books, TV shows and local community. Taking them to relevant cultural events. Ensuring there is diversity in their school. On that end, I felt better. Our area is fairly diverse and less than 50% of the kids at our local high school were white and we have several friends of color. Our neighborhood is mostly white but there are several families of color, too. I began really noticing who was in the restaurants, parks and stores though to make sure there was diversity.

Anyway, the home-study process went smoothly overall and we didn’t have any concerns with the local agency who administered it and worked with us. The national agency, however, is a different story.

PART 3: ISSUES WITH THE ADOPTION AGENCY

The first few interactions we had with the national agency were with a social worker and she was very kind, intelligent, timely and seemed trustworthy. Unfortunately, we did not have good experiences with the rest of the staff and had a lot of disappointing experiences from the time we began working intensively with them in November 2016 to when we cut ties in late January 2017. These were the five main issues.

  1. Birth Mother Letter

After completing an initial application that included information about how our financial range was $30,000 to $40,000, the next step was to complete a “birth mother letter.” I held a phone call with someone on staff who mailed us sample books written by other couples and told me what our narrative should include, namely who we are and what life we could offer to the child of any prospective birth mother who read it. She instructed us that once the text was finalized, to use Shutterfly and create a photobook they could send to prospective birth mothers so the mothers could decide if they wanted us to raise their child.

I sent back my draft text within 24 hours. It took a week for her to send back a few minor edits, which I completed in 24 hours again. It took her another week to approve the text and give the okay to put it in Shutterfly and add photos. I spent hours and hours pouring over all our photos to select just the right ones to illustrate the text. Mark reviewed it and gave input. When I sent the log-in info to the staff person so she could review it, I was later horrified to see her completely change the layout, replace several of the photos with ones that didn’t make sense with the narrative on the page, and she even re-wrote text and made it inaccurate. I was furious. At that time, I was working the full-time and part-time job and doing the home-study and did not have time to spare. Yet, now I had to go back in and fix everything that was wrong.

Once I got the book to a compromised state that I felt still reflected us accurately, I let her know. I had picked a medium book size and less expensive layouts but she came back and said it had to be bigger and have the more expensive layouts. We were pretty upset because they also said they needed 20 books expressed mailed to them. Even with a coupon, this cost us over $500!!! And this was not part of our “up to $40,000” in fees. We felt we had no choice though and complied.

To our knowledge, the book only went to two prospective birth mothers. I don’t know what they did with the remaining 18 books, but it was a huge waste of my time and money at a time when I didn’t have either to spare.

The most upsetting part was that when we were paired with a birth mother on December 30 who was due on February 14, and I began texting with her, it seemed likely she had not read the birth mother letter. I don’t know if she ever really received it. It seemed like the agency just paired people willy-nilly based on who was available to pay them and who was giving birth soon and not based on if they were an actual match.

2. Extra Expenses

The birth mother letter was just the first of a series of unexpected expenses. Once we were paired with someone, we not only had to pay for all the lawyer fees and the agency’s staff time and everything relating to the birth process, but we had to pay for things like the birth mother’s rent, utilities and cable bill up until birth and for THREE MONTHS afterward. We had to pay for her transportation to her doctor appointments and childcare at that time for her four children living with her. We had to pay for maternity clothes (even though surely she had some since she’d given birth before recently and was already 7.5 months pregnant now). These expenses went on and on and quickly exceeded the $40,000. Several times we asked them to please let us know the total expected costs because if it was much higher, we’d have to wait to be paired with a birth mother who was due later in the year when we could save up more money. They never would provide us with that information and kept saying variations of, “We can’t anticipate the expenses.” Riiight.

We later realized from reading testimonials from celebrities with whom they’d worked and talking to two different people who had adopted through them that their main clientele are people much wealthier than us for whom an extra few thousand dollars was nothing. One person told us they were quoted $100,000 for the adoption (even though they were paired with a mother who was giving birth any day, so the expenses should have been less than ours) and they were so pleasantly surprised when it was only about $40,000. They also said they only read half the paperwork, they were just so eager to become parents.

3. Coercion

A few times I asked the social worker how likely it was that the birth mother would change her mind after the baby was born. The last time I asked, the answer was disturbing.

For background, the preference of the agency is for birth mothers to fly from wherever they are (the one we were paired with was in Wisconsin) to California to give birth. The original explanation was that this is where they had a good relationship with a hospital and a “birth mother companion” and the state laws made the adoption process easier. Our birth mother agreed to go to California, so we were informed we’d have to pay for her (and her two youngest children) to fly to California at least two weeks before she was due (and the return flights) and pay for her hotel for those weeks and a few weeks afterward as well as pay a food and entertainment stipend. We also had to pay for the birth mother companion’s time. Another one of those hidden expenses was when they told us we’d also have to buy two car seats for the two kids for the few weeks they were there. And they had to be brand new car seats even though they would barely be used.

We also knew we’d have to pay for our own flights to California, a car rental and hotel for several weeks while we waited for the adoption paperwork to be finalized. Of course those out-of-pocket costs for us, which could quickly add up, were not part of that initial up to $40,000 we were quoted. (So, more hidden expenses.) But we prepared to do all that and planned to spend some time staying with friends and family in California to help reduce our expenses.

Anyway, the last time I asked the social worker about the chances of the birth mother changing her mind, she said, “Once she gets to California, the chance is very low. Birth mothers are told that if they change their mind, they have pay their own way home.” For our birth mother, that meant paying for three flights (the baby could sit on her lap but she’d need seats for the other two kids) back to Wisconsin. How could she possibly afford that?

To me, that felt unethical. If the birth mother wanted to change her mind, yes I would hate that for my own reasons, but I would not want to stand in her way if that was her choice or make it cost-prohibitive for her to do so. To me, that practice of making them fly to California not only brought all sorts of extra costs compared to her staying at home, but it also felt like coercion.

4. Transracial Adoption (Part 2)

Because we said we were open to any race of child and most other people do not list that on their application, it seemed inevitably we’d have a transracial adoption. We were almost paired with a birth mother having an African American girl, and then the one we ultimately were paired with was having an African American boy.

Honestly, I was less worried about the actual act of having a baby who would cry, need food, love and diapers changed than the act of being able to ethically raise a child of color. I tossed and turned night after night as I thought about all the ways I may be less helpful to a child of color than a parent of color would be. I read articles and books and just worried and worried about it. I know some persons of color adamantly don’t think white people should raise a child of color because it does the child a disservice in preparing them for a life where racism will be a reality. I worried about that constantly. How could I: 1) work to not be inadvertently racist myself; 2) try to make the world less racist for my child; 3) equip him to handle racism when he encountered it?

I finally asked to have a conversation with our social worker about it. I voiced my concerns about whether I could do right by a child of color. I asked if the agency had resources she could share with me and asked for any stories she could share about transracial adoptions they’d done and how the children were faring. She had none of those things and it sounded like I’d done more research than she had. She said NO ONE ELSE had ever asked her about these issues before, which horrified me.

I was further disturbed during a conversation with a white couple she suggested I speak with (the one who had been quoted $100,000) who had recently adopted an African American boy. When I brought up some of the things I’d been thinking about doing to better ensure our son saw people like him around us, the husband in the couple was like, “Oh, yeah, we live in a really white area and I guess our son won’t really see African Americans until high school.” And the way he said it made me feel like he didn’t think that was a problem and they weren’t going to do anything to fix that. I hope that changes for them in time, but right then, I felt worried for their son.

I worried about all these children of color this agency was sending to live with clueless white families. If I was “the most aware” of all the people, that scared me. Yes, I am a social justice activist who perhaps is more aware of racism than some white people, but I don’t want to be the high standard from the start. I wanted guidance to help me get to that high standard.

I felt some degree of relief when the birth mother texted with me about how she chose us as the parents. But my concern was, who were her choices? I asked our social worker how many parents of color the birth mother had to choose from, and she said none. In other words, she had to choose from a bunch of white people. That didn’t really make me feel much better.

Further, when the birth mother told me it wasn’t that she didn’t want this baby, but he was unplanned and she didn’t have the resources, I almost felt like instead of spending money to take her son from her to be raised in my white family that may inadvertently not do completely right by him, I should be giving her the money to be able to help raise her son herself. I know that’s not the answer and she did make the choice to engage in the adoption process, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that this whole thing wasn’t quite right.

5. Medical Records

Now, you would think that when you’re paired with a birth mother, you would receive medical records. At the very least, this can verify she is indeed pregnant…. For the first several weeks, we had absolutely no medical records. All we had was a form that the birth mother partially filled out about herself and her family and it told us very little.

The agency promised they were working on getting us the medical records. By mid-January, the agency wanted the second $9,000 installment. I wrote back and asked where were the medical records and that I wanted to see them first. I regret every day that I didn’t stick to my gut. But after a few days of silence on their end, Mark felt I should wire the money to show we were upholding our end and to hopefully pressure them to uphold their part. So reluctantly, I sent the money.

On January 23, three weeks before the baby’s due date and only about two weeks before we planned to fly to California, the social worker wrote me a note saying she needed to talk by phone (I noticed that all important communication from them from this point forward was by phone, with no paper trail). She had received the medial records from early in the pregnancy, but no recent records. Those early records suggested the baby could have heart issues. The biggest red flag was the birth mother had chosen to raise two children, chosen adoption for her third who died soon after of heart failure, and chosen to raise two more children — why was she now again choosing adoption for this child? Did she know he had heart problems? Also, why had she never before mentioned already having chosen adoption for one of her children? Because the baby then died?

The medical records also strongly suggested the boy would be born drug addicted, which was the only criteria Mark had listed as not being okay with when we filled out our application. THE ONLY ONE. So they never should have paired us with this birth mother in the first place (she claimed she was now drug-free but there was no proof, nor proof that she’d been drug-free long enough that the baby wouldn’t be born addicted). There were also several discrepancies in the medical records compared with what she put on her adoption application and what she told me via text. We suddenly felt we could not trust her. What was true and what wasn’t?

Our social worker was clearly concerned too and advised us to have a physician review the records and give us an opinion on next steps. Although she also did one very laughable thing — she said she knew someone who could look at photos of the birth mother’s other children (the only photos we had were very grainy and poor quality) and tell us if the baby-to-be would be healthy. That sounded like major bullshit, and of course would be expensive. We declined that offer.

We were fortunate that our former neighbor was a physician and she had an OBGYN colleague who agreed to look at the records for us pro bono. Based on her analysis, she recommended that the birth mother have a Fetal Echocardiography done and of course provide us with recent medial records. Otherwise, without these documents, we had no assurance that the baby would not die soon after he was born or have serious health challenges. While of course, there are no guarantees and any baby can die or have health issues, we wanted to have all the information we could.

The adoption agency was unable to procure us the recent medical records and the Fetal Echocardiography. So, after discussing everything with both sets of our parents and staying up late into the night discussing it together, we ultimately decided to end the adoption process. There were so many red flags now, and we felt like we were having to convince ourselves to do it. I had to ask myself: if you aren’t excited and happy about adopting a baby, then why are you doing it?

When I informed the social worker of our decision the next day, she said she understood. In poor taste, the lawyer on the team accidentally cc’ed us in an email to her asking about still bringing the birth mother to California and matching her with a new couple then.

We did not receive any apologies or admission of guilt for: 1) pairing us with a birth mother who met the only criteria we were not okay with; 2) not procuring the right medical records; 3) not procuring the medical records we did get in a timely manner.

We asked about getting our last $9,000 back since we’d only paid it about a week earlier, but we received no response. Instead, a few weeks later, we received a bill that “generously” said they would waive the remaining fees we owed (how in the world could we owe more than $18,000 after working with them for only two months and only closely for three weeks?).

We were so disillusioned and upset by the whole ordeal that we just wanted to move on. We didn’t try to get any money back and felt relieved that we hadn’t given them any more of our money. It was painful to dwell on it all. It’s still painful for us.

I know there are ethical adoption agencies out there, and if we ever return to adoption, we will work with the local agency that did our home-study. They were good to work with and clearly they think about issues like transracial adoption because we had to do a training session on it. The downside is it often takes up to two years for families to be paired with an infant.

If you are in an adoption process, I hope it goes well. If you have had a good adoption experience, I am very glad. But for others like us who haven’t had a good experience, I empathize and I wish it wasn’t so.

Holly Kearl

Written by

Founder of @StopStHarassmnt & @NoStHarassweek. Author. Work for @AspenInstitute #EndSH #Feminist

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