Single, gay, older, living abroad? In you are in one of these categories, here's what you need to know to begin the adoption process.
by Lucia Moses
While young, healthy, married couples living in middle America may have more options open to them, gay, single, older, disabled, and expatriate people are also building families through adoption. If you are in one of these categories, here are the challenges you may face, and where to get support.
In the past 20 years, the number of single-parent adoptions has steadily increased; some people feel that it is the fastest-growing trend in adoption. The growing number of one-parent households, availability of adoption subsidies in most states for children with special needs, and agencies' desire to find homes for children who are older or who have disabilities are driving the acceptance of single-parent adoption. A number of foreign countries consider single applicants, and some public child welfare agencies in the U.S. now view singles as the ideal match for children with traumatic histories, because of the personal attention the parent may be able to provide.
Still, the persistent view that a child needs both a mother and a father poses challenges for singles. Some agencies don't work with singles. Single men face even tougher scrutiny, as they are asked intimate questions about their motives, friends, and living arrangements. Prospective single parents can expect to be asked about their support system, finances, lifestyle, and how they plan to provide role models of the opposite sex.
Many couples and singles in their middle years are taking the parenthood plunge through adoption, joining a trend toward late-life parenting. Some are first-time parents, while others are rearing a second family. Agencies have raised or eliminated age limits for prospective adoptive parents, although most seek to place children with parents they consider to be the normal age parents of that child. Birthparents may be more comfortable with younger adoptive parents. Many countries that place children internationally have age restrictions, although some have established higher maximum ages. "We love mid-life adoptive parents," says Ellen Bloom, L.C.S.W., an adoptive mom who is director of social services for the World Association for Children and Parents agency in Renton, Washington. "By the time 40- and 50-year-old people get to parenting, they are ready to take on the challenge."
While gay men and women have always adopted, they still face hurdles to adoption on the state and local levels. Florida is the only state that specifically outlaws adoptions by any gay, lesbian, or bisexual person, although similar bans are periodically proposed in other states. Only 11 states and the District of Columbia have laws or have had appeals court rulings allowing same-sex couples to adopt jointly. The most common practice is still for one member of the couple to apply as the legal adoptive parent of the child. Then, the second member applies for a co-parent adoption.
Success in adopting depends on the state adoption law and the attitude of the agency and homestudy social worker. Social workers who are uncomfortable with homosexuality may find the prospective parents unsuitable for other reasons. Since the final decision is made by judges at the county level, adoption for openly gay and lesbian couples is influenced by the community in which they live. The court's decision hinges on the "best interest" of the child, a concept interpreted differently by different judges. Gay adoption advocates recommend that gay adopters have an attorney represent them at their finalization hearing as a precaution.
To adopt privately, gay applicants should look for a domestic agency that accepts applications from gays (60% of them say they do, with agencies that facilitate adoption from foster care the most likely to place children with gay parents, a recent survey showed). Typically, the agency would search for a birthmother who is open to gay adoptive parents, although some agencies may present the applicant to the birthmother as a single. Gays may choose to adopt independently by finding a birthmother and working with a lawyer.
International adoption adds another wrinkle, as many foreign countries allow singles to adopt, but don't officially accept gay adults as prospective parents. Gay prospective adopters wrestle with the question of whether to disclose their sexual orientation to an agency. If they're open, they can find a gay-friendly agency. If they choose not to disclose, they will find some agencies that don't ask about their orientation. Advocates for gay adoption encourage gays to be open about their sexuality and to find a homestudy provider and agency that will work with them.
Public and private adoption agencies are covered by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Disability-related screening criteria may be justified in the name of safety, but the decision must be based on actual risks and not on mere speculation, stereotypes, generalizations, or unfounded fears about individuals with disabilities.
Having a disability does not automatically disqualify you from adopting a child, although you may have to knock on many doors before finding an agency willing to work with you. You'll need to convince the agency, probably with a detailed statement from your doctor, that you can care for a child and meet his or her needs. Similarly, if you have a serious illness, an agency will want to know that you can manage it along with the challenges of raising a child.
Since disabilities are evaluated on an individual basis by the countries that permit international adoption, it is difficult to generalize about which countries are more open to adopters with disabilities, says Sigal Shapira, director of international adoption at the Spence-Chapin agency in New York City. "Sending countries want to be assured that the recommending agency has properly evaluated the family and that the quality of life is such that the parents will be able to care for the child in a meaningful way."
Families living abroad are usually unable to meet agency residency requirements, nor are they able to attend mandatory meetings and workshops. There are, however, a growing number of agencies who will accept homestudies done by a social worker overseas. Contact International Social Services, USA branch (410-230-2734 or www.iss-usa.org) for referral to a local contact for a homestudy in your country of residence.
Agencies who understand that military bases are considered U.S. soil realize they can place U.S.-born children with overseas military families through the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, just as if the family lived in another state. However, placements of international children are more complex, involving the governments of three countries—the U.S., the parents' country of residence, and the child's country of origin. Once again, agencies are becoming more amenable to working with families living overseas. Contact a number of U.S. adoption agencies with details about your situation and the country from which you wish to adopt.
Lucia Moses is the adoptive mother of two. She lives with her family in New York.
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