The following is the written material provided by David Crouse at his speaking engagement for the Washington State Bar Association Mid-Year Family Law Continuing Legal Education course in June 2015.
I. My Background With International Adoption
Having been adopted myself, my interest in pursuing one or more adoptions has always been quite high. My biological daughter was born in 1987. Ten years later, in 1997, my wife and I decided to embark on the journey of an international adoption. We decided that seeking a true orphan, perhaps with special needs, was our area of greatest interest. That journey ultimately led to four international adoptions. We completed two adoptions in Russia and two adoptions in Ukraine. We also tentatively explored an adoption in Kazakhstan, but were unable to complete it due to agency issues. Our first adoption was completed in 1998 and our fourth (and final) adoption was completed in January 2014.
I have practiced exclusively as a family law attorney since 1993. I am often asked if my experience in family law assisted me in completing my international adoptions. My response is that it did not help me a bit, except for perhaps developing the resolve to persevere the process when things went wrong (and they usually did). A prospective international adoptive parent’s greatest assets are a pioneer spirit, patience, and a determination to see the adoption through to completion regardless of the roadblocks that are faced. Having said this, my experience in international adoption has allowed me to effectively counsel clients who are debating whether to adopt domestically or internationally.
II. Where Does It All Start?
Aside from perhaps the initial discussion of countries that interest the prospective adoptive parents and the selection of an adoption agency, the home study is always the first step in the international adoption process. Without the existence of an approved, accredited home study, absolutely nothing can proceed further. When I commenced my international adoption process in 1997, regulations regarding the home study were far more lax than currently exist. There were several types of approved home study providers, ranging from social workers to individuals employed by an agency.
Slowly but surely, changes were enacted. The quality of the home study was far too varied. Prospective parents were approved for adoption that probably should have been disapproved. Ultimately, a shift was seen after substantial publicity over failed adoptions of Russian children, abuse of adopted Russian children, and the suitability of the adoptive parents. Ultimately, Russia and Romania closed their countries to international adoption, although with Russia this appears to be as much politically motivated as motivated by concerns over the American adoption process. Issues appeared in other countries as well. Regardless of the impetus for the changes, the fact is that changes have been enacted and strict compliance is mandatory.
Beginning July 14, 2014, either the prospective parents’ adoption agency or their home study agency must be Hague accredited. This is true regardless of whether the chosen country is a Hague Convention signatory or not. While the foreign country may not require a Hague-accredited home study, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) absolutely requires it. Without the Hague accredited home study, prospective parents will never receive USCIS approval (and the required visa) to bring their child to the United States. To be absolutely safe, I would highly recommend that every prospective parent ensure that their home study agency be Hague accredited in the event that they change agencies and to circumvent any other potential problems down the line. International adoption will have plenty of “issues” and there is no need to add any additional stress to the journey.
A home study is not a quick process. It is much more than a social worker visiting the prospective parents’ home as may occur with a domestic adoption. Fingerprint checks are required. Medical records are required which will necessarily entail doctor visits. Other documents will be requested such as prior divorce documents (if applicable), marriage certificates, etc. Home interviews are conducted. Police records or clearance letters may be requested. If prospective parents are diligent and have no significant background issues, a home study can be completed in about two months. Once the prospective parents have received a favorable home study, they may then begin the adoption petition procedure with USCIS.
Importantly, if prospective parents desire to adopt a special needs child, their home study must include a special discussion relative to their desire and ability to adopt a special needs child. If this may even be a remote possibility, prospective parents should talk with their home study provider about this so that the requisite language is included in their home study. Failure to add this language may result in either substantial delays or even a denial of the adoption, should the prospective parents ultimately choose to adopt a special needs child. I strongly recommend that this language be added to every home study.
Similarly, the prospective parents’ home study should be as least-restrictive as possible when it comes to the children to be selected. Ideally, prospective parents would want to be approved for children from 1 to 15 years in age, boy or girl, and for sibling groups. Things can change when prospective parents are overseas. Adaptability can be the key to a successful adoption.
There is a common stereotype that the Federal government can be difficult to work with. I have personally spent over an hour on hold waiting for an IRS representative to tell me how much to pay, so I understand the reservations that most people may feel. However, when it comes to adoption, I assure all clients that the USCIS is a pleasure to work with in all facets of the process. From the initial filing to the final interview at the U.S. Consulate overseas to re-enter into the United States with their child, USCIS representatives strive to make international adoption a reality and a little less stressful. Prospective parents will find USCIS to be very adoption friendly and amazingly organized.
The first step toward receiving approval to adopt from USCIS is to fill out and submit your I-600A form. All forms are available at www.uscis.gov and there is no need to pay any third party for these forms. The USCIS I-600A introduction form is attached as Appendix A. The actual I-600A form is attached as Appendix B. These are submitted, with your home study and the requisite fee, to USCIS for their review.
Shortly after submission of the I-600A form, prospective parents will be sent an acknowledgment of receipt form by USCIS. All documents must be saved by the prospective parents. About 2-3 weeks after receipt of this acknowledgment, USCIS will send the prospective parents a notice to appear for a second set of fingerprints at a USCIS office. To avoid delays, prospective parents should complete every requirement at the earliest possible date.
Assuming that there are no issues prohibiting adoption, the prospective parents will ultimately receive from USCIS the I-171H form, Notice of Favorable Determination. Once this form is received, the prospective parents can proceed with the next step of their international adoption, compiling their dossier for their chosen country. From the time that the I-600A is submitted, it takes about 60 days to receive the I-171H approval form if there are no issues.
Be advised that if the prospective parents have any criminal arrests or convictions, they will be required to produce documentation to USCIS explaining the circumstances. Domestic violence, serious assaults, drug convictions, felonies and other serious violations can potentially bar a parent from approval for international adoption. Prospective parents should discuss such issues with their home study provider at the outset, before they get too far into the process.
Finally, it should be noted that the I-600A form is quite different than the I-600 form. The I-600A form allows prospective parents to commence the USCIS adoption process. The I-600 form is used by USCIS at the completion of the adoption process.
III. The International Dossier
Each country has their own specific requirements and specific forms. While I was ultimately forced to do so during my 2004-2005 Ukraine adoption due to their Orange Revolution, it is exceptionally difficult to navigate and complete an international adoption without the assistance of an adoption agency. Language barriers alone will make the process nearly impossible to complete. While this will be discussed in more detail during my presentation, it is critical to find a trustworthy agency to partner with. Prospective parents must do their due-diligence before selecting their agency. Over the years many shady agencies have taken substantial sums of money from prospective parents and then failed to complete the adoption. Some agencies have been closed down by their respective state leaving prospective parents stranded, and some agency representatives have even been criminally prosecuted and imprisoned.
This situation has improved with stricter regulations and Hague Convention compliance that have evolved over the last few years. Nonetheless, some agencies are better and more professional than others. I recommend an internet search, a Better Business Bureau search, and a check with the state where the agency is located. Ask the home study provider to recommend an appropriate agency. Once a prospective agency is located, parents should ask for references that they can talk to. Call the references and verify that the process operated reasonably smoothly. However, understand that there will be some problems and delays with even the best-managed agencies due to unavoidable issues with the foreign country’s government and their lack of effective management.
Prospective parents should select their agency about the time that they begin their home study process. The reason that they should do so is that there will be many forms required by the foreign country that will take some time to obtain. If they begin this process simultaneously with the home study process, all documents could be ready to be submitted to their chosen country once they receive their I-171H form (Notice of Favorable Determination). Generally, all these documents will need to be apostille sealed by the Secretary of State so if everything can be ready at once, delays can be avoided.
Prospective parents must investigate the requirements for adoption by their chosen foreign country. Some countries, such as Latvia and Bulgaria for example, allow single parents to adopt. Some countries, such as Ukraine, require prospective parents to be married in order to adopt. Ukraine recognizes only “traditional” marriages, meaning that same-sex married couples cannot adopt in Ukraine. Age requirements exist in most countries. Preliminary information can be found on the internet, but their agency is the best source of information. Prospective parents should understand that bias exists in many countries that can substantially affect the probability of a successful adoption and they should carefully select the country that they choose to adopt from.
Once the dossier is submitted to the chosen country, the prospective parents will wait for an “Invitation to Travel”. The actual name of the document will vary from country to country, but in general, the prospective parents will receive notification that they may travel to the country to either select their child, or meet with a child that they have previously identified. When this date is provided, prospective parents should literally clear their calendar and travel. If they request a more convenient date, their adoption could be delayed by many months. Never expect exemplary “customer service” from the foreign government representatives. Good service is the exception rather than the rule. Prospective parents must adapt to the requirements and timing of their chosen country.
IV. The In-Country Process
The adoption process will certain vary from country to country, but many aspects are the same. In general, the first step will be to go to a government office with their agency representative in order to receive the documents necessary to travel to the orphanage and meet their selected child. If the prospective parents have not selected a child in advance, this is when they will review documents in order to select a child. Be advised that these records are often rudimentary and poorly kept. If prospective parents can select a child in advance, they may have a little more piece of mind. However, selecting a child in advance is not possible in many adoptions.
Once the parents receive the government documents required to meet their chosen child, they will travel with their agency representative to visit the child at the orphanage. Parents must create a favorable impression with the orphanage director. In many countries, the orphanage director can effectively quash an adoption if the director does not like the prospective parents, regardless of whether they are “officially” allowed to do so or not. Requirements vary from country to country, but typically the prospective parents meet, visit, and bond with their child. Once sufficient time has elapsed, both pursuant to the law and the directives of the orphanage director, documents are completed which allow the prospective parents to move to the next step of the adoption process. This is a simplified outline as there are a multitude of documents that are being produced during this period of visitation with the child.
Once all documents are completed and the parents have met the country’s requirement for visitation with the child, typically a hearing is set before the local judge. The judge, and in some cases a jury, will decide whether the adoption will be granted. Depending on the age of the child, they may be asked questions by the court. The parents almost certainly will be questioned. The agency representative will prepare the parents for this court process. The court will usually approve the adoption, but I have personally seen adoptions denied by the court for various reasons during my in-country stays.
Assuming that the adoption is granted, the parents can then proceed to obtain a passport from the foreign country. The passport is a necessity in order to secure the child’s visa from the U.S. Consulate. Also, some countries have a waiting period after the adoption is granted by the court in order to allow any interested family members to appeal the court’s decision (which almost never happens). Usually, after the adoption is granted the child resides with the parents in-country until the final processing is completed. Passport photos will be taken of the child for the U.S. Consulate and the child will undergo a medical examination at a consulate-approved facility.
V. Completion of the Adoption
Once the parents have their child’s adoption decree, passport, photos, and medical examination, they will proceed to the U.S. Consulate for their exit interview. This interview is scheduled in advance, typically by the agency representative. This is a friendly process, quite unlike the process that occurs with foreign marriages or other immigration matters (which can be fairly hostile). The consulate representative will check the documents to make sure everything is in order. The parents will return in a few days (or less) to obtain the child’s visa, which is placed in the child’s passport. The I-600 form is completed. The parents are provided a sealed envelope of documents to be provided to immigration officers upon their entry into the United States. This envelope must never be opened by the parents or substantial problems will result. The parents can then travel back to the United States with their child. Pursuant to legislation enacted by President Clinton, the child becomes an automatic United States citizen upon completion of this process by the U.S. Consulate and entry into the United States.
Parents are typically advised that the process will take 4-6 weeks in the foreign country. Depending on the country chosen, multiple trips (or a very extended stay) will be required. My best advice is to plan on delays. I would advise parents to be prepared for 7-8 weeks in the chosen country. Delays could result in even longer stays.
My 2004-2005 adoption was delayed by Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. My wife and I made 5 trips to Ukraine to push the adoption through, the last trip being a stay of 5 weeks. The entire adoption took almost two full years to complete. (We had identified our daughter in advance through a hosting program and were committed to bringing her home despite the ongoing revolution/collapse of the government). My last Ukraine adoption began in February 2013 and was completed in January 2014. Just my luck, Ukraine was going through their recent revolution, ousting President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. While watching the revolution commence just outside of my apartment window on Independence Square in Kiev was both fascinating and exciting, my expected stay of 4-5 weeks (divided into two trips) turned into my residing in Ukraine from October 2013 through January 2014, with some brief trips home. While my experiences may be an exception, prospective parents must be prepared for delays when dealing with foreign governments and unstable courts.
Adoption agencies will typically advise that an international adoption for one child will cost approximately $25,000.00 to $35,000.00 depending on the country selected. Costs are increased for sibling adoptions or where multiple unrelated children are adopted at once. Regardless of the quoted costs, my experience is that costs almost always run in excess of the quoted costs for the foreign country portion of the international adoption. Unless prospective parents are fortunate, delays will occur. This will result in increased hotel/housing costs, increased airfare, and increased incidental costs. My recommendation is that prospective parents budget $50,000.00 for an adoption. Adoption loans and grants are available. America’s Christian Credit Union in California offers adoption loans at competitive rates and is one of the primary adoption lenders.
A word on corruption is appropriate. One of the reasons that foreign children are available for adoption is that their governments are dysfunctional, at least in some respects. Corruption is rampant in many of these countries, although substantially less so in European countries such as Latvia. Prospective parents must be prepared for payments to some government officials. For example, in Ukraine a payment of a $1,000.00 “orphanage donation” is mandatory and is printed directly in most agencies’ fee schedules. The reality is that this money basically goes directly into the director’s pocket. Depending on the orphanage, the director may seek additional “donations for the children” which could include such items as a laptop computer, an Apple I-Phone, or cash. In other situations, government workers may request an “expedite fee”. This is a reality for many adoptive parents, and failure to handle the situation appropriately will likely result in serious delays or even denial of adoption.
In almost all cases, these donations/fees are handled by your agency representative. This is part of the “foreign adoption fee” paid to your agency, and typically, these requests for donations are a minor nuisance. I have never seen a situation where the adoptive parents are directly solicited by any government official, and instead requests are made through the agency representatives who likely has an established working relationship. However, adoptive parents should be prepared for requests for additional funds from the agency representative. They should also be prepared for overcharging by associated representatives such as drivers, translators, etc.
Finally, unless parents are traveling to a country with substantial safety issues (Liberia, Haiti, etc.), they should be prepared to avail themselves of everything each country offers. Certainly, I have seen parents who sit in their apartments all day except for required adoption-related activities. This results in pure drudgery as there are many days with nothing occurring. Parents with a pioneer spirit will have the time to see much of their country of choice, can often travel extensively, and can really soak in the culture. Of course, this comes with a price.
Except for the extraordinarily lucky, international adoption will cause stress and will not proceed smoothly at all times. From start to finish, it is reasonable to expect the process to take 9-12 months despite what optimistic agencies may hope for. However, it has also proven to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and one which I have no regrets whatsoever of undertaking. So long as parents have the necessary resolve to complete the process, I have always highly encouraged them to undertake an international adoption.