But only single parent-adoptions are available overseas, and the process is rapidly becoming more complicated
For David Fisher of Dallas and his partner, the decision to adopt a child abroad came naturally. Waiting interminably on a list for a domestic adoption to come together was not an option. Nor, for various reasons, were the other avenues available to gay couples trying to start a family.
“We wanted a child, and all of the research we did said that after you adopt [from overseas], the concerns of not being able to bond or not truly feeling like the child is yours wouldn’t be an issue,” said Fisher. “They haven’t been.”
The couple chose to work with an agency in Guatemala that other gay parents they know had success with, Fisher said. The agency has a partner organization in the United States that provides assistance to couples here, such as making sure paperwork is in order and notifying the prospective parents about potential matches.
Fisher and his partner traveled to Guatemala to visit with their baby boy when he was two months old and were able to bring him back to the United States when he was three months old.
The child’s age was a bit unusual. In most countries today, a child must be at least a year old before becoming eligible for adoption.
The couple’s son is two years old now. They dote on him constantly.
“Parenting is far more difficult and at the same time far more amazing that I ever expected it to be,” Fisher said. “We knew ahead of time the kind of life and education and so on that we wanted for our child. We really are obsessive, yuppie parents. Everything has to be perfect.”
For LGBT individuals or couples seeking to start a family, overseas adoptions are sometimes the best option. Prospective parents may spend a lot of time trying to adopt in the United States with little luck. Perhaps they are working with an agency that is not experienced in gay adoptions, or maybe it’s because most biological mothers choose heterosexual couples as parents for their babies. Or the domestic adoption laws in their states may be too restrictive.
Whatever the reason, looking abroad is sometimes the most attractive avenue for those open to the idea.
But while Fisher says their experience only a couple years ago was a positive one, the process is rapidly getting more complicated.
The number of international adoptions by U.S. citizens has more than tripled over the last 15 years from about 7,000 in 1990 to 22,700 in 2005, according to the State Department. Last year nearly 8,000 visas were issued for children coming into the U.S. from China alone, making that the top country of origin for adoptions by Americans, followed by Russia, Guatemala and South Korea.
But no country currently approves an international adoption by a same-sex couple. Gays and lesbians who adopt internationally must select which member of the couple will adopt as a single parent, essentially avoiding the question of sexual orientation, industry professionals said. Once the child is brought into the United States, depending on which state the family is in, a second parent may petition for dual-parent status.
Those working to help gay families adopt internationally say the good news is it’s still possible. In specific regions of some countries like Guatemala, officials have granted gay adoptions. The bad news is that many countries, recognizing that gays and lesbians are seeking children within their borders, are taking a closer look before granting approval.
International gay adoption is without a doubt getting harder, said Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Pride Coalition.
“Certain countries that had previously been good options for LGBT couples have cracked down on how they’re reviewing applications,” she said. “They’re doing a lot more investigation.”
Chrisler said there are still ways for gays and lesbians to execute an international adoption. Success depends to a great extent on the domestic agencies and social workers who cooperate with their international counterparts. It’s these groups responsible for conducting the home study and reviewing documents that typically make or break an adoption case.
When LGBT people have to travel overseas to complete the adoption, only the adopting parent goes, or if both partners go, the other is “just a friend.” Chrisler said that kind of ruse is often necessary so that foreign officials do not get suspicious about the sexual orientation of the adoptive parent.
Social workers helping LGBT people to adopt overseas say individuals who come across as “obviously gay” often have very little chance of pulling off adoptions in places like Eastern Europe, where authorities diligently hunt for clues to a prospective parent’s homosexuality. The social workers say that, bad as it may sound, they will steer those individuals away from such options because they know they will be denied.
There are other complications. If a couple plans to adopt more than one child from overseas, they may hold off on any paperwork that designates them as a couple, such as registering for domestic partner benefits or conducting a second-parent adoption. That’s because by legally acknowledging their relationship they reduce their chances of being able to stand up to background investigations by overseas courts granting adoptions.
But Chrisler warned that can be dangerous.
“In effect they are delaying taking these actions that would legally protect the child or children they already have in order to do additional adoptions,” she said. “It’s a risk.”
In essence, some social workers said, doing a home study for a gay couple adopting internationally typically requires some evasion of truth. While the social worker may understand that this is a couple looking to adopt, on paper it’s reported as an individual. Without that, they say, gays trying to adopt wouldn’t stand a chance.
Some will wonder about the ethics of such practices. Is it OK for a couple to lie in order to obtain a child they might not be able to have otherwise? Does the fact that these children are in need of a family and the couple can provide a stable, loving home trump the rest? Furthermore, do social workers who put their licenses on the line by assisting have a moral responsibility to get the facts straight regardless of their personal feelings or are they simply dealing with discriminatory practices the only way they are able?
How it works
The Dallas-based Hope Cottage adoption agency assists LGBT clients with domestic adoptions, but it does not work with them on the international front because the agency’s counterpart groups abroad have not had any success getting approval for gay adoptions. Doris Marshall, director of international adoption services for the agency, said she refers gay and lesbian couples trying to adopt overseas to other agencies that have met with success in certain countries.
Still, Marshall said her advice to gay people trying to adopt in other countries is to know what you’re getting into. Adoptive parents have to be willing to travel abroad, perhaps more than once. In most cases, the child they receive will be older than one year and rarely younger than eight months. That can be a sticking point for those who want an infant, she said.
“Families have to begin looking at the possibility of parenting a child older than a year if they want to pursue this as an option,” Marshall said.
“International adoption in general is getting harder and there are many things that you have no control over. But if you are flexible with the child’s age and other criteria if you really want to be a parent this is certainly a possibility.”
Marshall said once parents have decided on an agency and the child’s country of origin, they need to have a home study completed by a social worker. The home study is designed to certify that the prospective parent will raise the child in a satisfactory manner in a good home. The home study, along with other information like health background, references and a criminal history, are included in a dossier that is submitted to adoption officials in the country of origin once the prospective adoptive parent is assigned a child. Pre-approval from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is also key to making the process go smoothly.
Depending on the country, the adoptive person or couple may have to appear in a foreign court to complete the adoption. Sometimes this is handled by an attorney working with the adoption agency, who will represent the parent. Once the adoption is completed, the new family must go to the country’s U.S. embassy to present the court documents and obtain a visa for the child. A follow-up period is often required, typically one to three years, where social workers visit the family and provide reports to child welfare officials in the native country. In some cases, depending on the state where the family resides, it may be necessary to re-adopt the child once back home. Parents should check with an attorney to determine if this is needed or advisable.
Cost is also a factor. While the overseas option is typically less expensive than a domestic adoption, it’s still not cheap. Costs vary from country to country, but between application and home study fees and legal and other expenses, the entire process typically ranges from $7,000 to $25,000, according to figures from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
But what problems might come from adopting a child that had been abandoned and perhaps psychologically scarred?
Psychologists and social workers have long debated the effects of overseas adoption. A study the Journal of the American Medical Association published in May provides evidence that children adopted abroad are no more prone to severe behavioral problems like aggressiveness and anxiety than American children. In fact, they tend to have fewer behavioral problems than those adopted here. Researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands based their conclusions on an analysis of data collected over more than 50 years.
Fisher agreed that children adopted from foreign countries adjust well and said he would recommend the option to others. He added that regardless of which agency a couple chooses, they should always talk to others who have used the agency in order to gain perspective.
Meanwhile, Fisher does not consider raising a child as a gay couple an obstacle. If anything, he said, since there isn’t a “mommy” to breast feed or fulfill the role in other ways, he and his partner are able to share responsibility equally.
And the responsibilities are many. Fisher said with a bit of a laugh, “We haven’t had sleep for two years.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, July 14, 2006.
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