Guidelines for Choosing an International Adoption Agency

By

Lori A. Lammers

Editor's note: As situations in each sending country change, asking questions about what happens when timeframes lengthen (like China currently is doing), what happens when a country closes, or if a country becomes suddenly popular are important (how do you ensure that everything remains legal and above board?). Be an educated parent, not only with selecting an agency, but with selecting a sending country. It will be time well spent. CK

Foreword on Agency Accreditation
By Hollee McGinnis, Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute

"Accreditation" these days refers to those countries that are parties to the Hague Convention and is a specific requirement that any country who is Hague compliant must have agencies that have been accredited by the standards set forth in their countries. However, for countries that are not Hague Convention this requirement for accreditation can vary widely. Nearly all countries that are non-Hague enforcing (like Korea, Vietnam) do often require a US agency must work with  local licensed agency (and perhaps with the Russia case they also require accreditation, but Russia, although a signatory to the Hague Convention, has not put the legal structure in place and thus it is not enforced), but this does not mean it is the case in every situation. In Guatamala, for example, US agencies work with lawyers and others who are not necessarily licensed within that country.

For the most up to date information on country specific requirements for international adoption is the US Department of State website: http://travel.state.gov/family/adoption/adoption_485.html.

It is very important for people to understand that these requirements change frequently. I would suggest for prospective adoptive parents to understand the requirements of the country they are interested in adopting from and make sure that the agency they are working with are compliant with those requirements (and thus doing ethical practice). I think it is useful to indicate that some U.S. adoption agencies have voluntarily sought accreditation through a national accrediting body such as the Council on Accreditation and that might be a valuable indicator. However, with the Hague Convention coming into force it seems that most adoption agencies in the USA will be COA accredited, or will have temporary accreditation, or may seek accreditation through a larger adoption agency. So I think prospective adoptive parents will in the future have to decide if they want to work with a larger adoption agency that is fully accredited or with a smaller adoption agency that may receive accreditation through another accredited agency. To find the most updated list of acredited agencies under Hague, visit here http://www.travel.state.gov/family/adoption/convention/convention_4169.html#

I think the most important point to make for adoptive parents as well is the fact that adoption is life-long and they should look into the post-adoption resources an agency can provide to their families as well. Raising children is a tough job no matter how your child enters our family, and working with an agency that has an obvious commitment to life after a placement and can provide resources should be strongly considered as a plus.

Hollee McGinnis

 

Adoptive mom Lori recommends that choosing the right agency will help improve the chances that your adoption process will go smoothly and work successfully for your family.  Don’t just rely on your instincts.  Do the research to make an informed decision.

Looking back at my first adoption process, I am rather appalled at what relatively little information I used to choose my international adoption agency.  But now a few years later, after reflecting on my own adoption experience and hearing about the experiences of others (both good and bad), I realize how important it is to spend the time to research and choose your international adoption agency carefully.  Choosing the right agency may save you a great deal of unnecessary stress and loss, and will help improve the chances that your adoption process will go smoothly.

Choosing an adoption agency is highly personal and may involve many factors, such as location and size of the agency, accreditation, experience in your country of choice, ethical business and adoption practices, eligibility requirements of parents, costs, and of course, references.  Each of these points will be discussed here, as well as Red Flags and a list of important questions to ask the adoption agency and your references.  Ultimately, your goal is to find an adoption agency that, while serving the children in need, will adequately represent the needs and wishes of you as future parents, and that can handle the type of adoption that you want for your family.

Getting Started 
Searching for the best adoption agency for your family can be a daunting task, but it is sure to be time well spent. 

  • Start by seeking to learn as much as you can about each step of the process.
  • Review USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) and State Department websites to learn about current rules and regulations of the country you are considering.
  • Conduct a web search to gather information and order packets from various adoption agencies.
  • Network with other adoptive parents to learn about their experiences. 
  • Contact an adoptive parent support group in your area and join Internet listserves specific to international adoption.
  • Ask other adoptive parents which agency they have had success with. 
  • Ask people to name good agencies and bad ones and get reasons for each.
  • Use the various search engines to research and gather information, including complaints, about the agencies you are considering.  
  • Start a list of your own questions to ask adoption agencies and references.
  • Plan to interview several adoption agencies. 
  • Consider asking a contract attorney to look over any agreement before you sign it.

Agency Location and Size 
It may be appealing to choose an agency close to where you live.  This may make it easier to attend local agency presentations and meet with staff personally, for your initial interview and even on a regular basis throughout your adoption process.  Meeting in person is more likely to give you an immediate sense of what the agency is like. Even if an agency is not nearby, it is still a good idea to meet with them personally.   If that is not possible you may need to talk by telephone more than once to get a true impression.  In this day and age, communication can be very efficient using the phone, email, and fax, so using an agency that is at a distance is usually not a problem.  While you will use a local social worker for your Homestudy, you should use the best and most ethical adoption agency you can find, regardless of its location.

You may also want to consider the size of your preferred agency.  A larger agency may have several employees, have several branch offices, work in several different countries, or in several regions in your country of choice.  It may be easier to transfer your dossier to another region or country if desired later on.   A smaller agency may concentrate their efforts in fewer regions.  They have fewer employees and may be able to give you more direct information and personalized service.

Accreditation
Find out if the agency has its own accreditation or if it works under the accreditation of another (“umbrella”, or “partnered”) agency. For example, Russian adoption requires that an agency have NGO (not for profit) status and be accredited by Russia itself.  However, due to US legal loopholes, several accredited agencies do allow other agencies under their “umbrella” to do Russia placements.  It is recommended that you choose an adoption agency that has its own accreditation and licensure, both in the United States and in the countries placing children for adoption.

A list of accredited adoption agencies specifically for the Russian program is available at the adoption page of the US Embassy’s web site at www.moscow.usembassy.gov and on the website for the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Washington DC at www.russianembassy.org

Be sure to find out when the agency’s license was obtained, when it expires, and if they have obtained Hague Treaty Accreditation.

Eligibility Requirements
Each country has eligibility requirements and medical requirements for adoptive parents.  Country restrictions can be viewed on www.travel.state.gov/family/adoption.   In addition, some agencies may also impose their own requirements.  Be sure to check with your prospective adoption agency about medical conditions that may disqualify you, or other agency-specific requirements (example:  age of parents and age of child, specific policy of adopting 2 unrelated children at one time, etc.).

Experience

  • Be sure to find out how many years the agency has been in business (many recommend that at least 3 years is desirable to establish good business practice).
  • Ask how many children the agency has placed in the last year (including how many children they have placed from your country of interest).   The longer an agency has been in business and the more adoptions it has handled, the more you can rely on its staff for their knowledge, experience, and established professional relationships with foreign governments.
  • Ask about the agency’s in-country facilitators, whether they are regular employees or subcontracted, how long they have been with the agency, and how they are paid.  A fixed salary is preferred to being paid “per adoption”.
  • Ask how many children were placed with circumstances similar to you (whether you are a single parent, those with bio children, adopting your first child, older parents, nontraditional family, subsequent adoption, or whatever else may define your family).

Ethics
It is of paramount importance to find an agency that engages in ethical adoption practices.  Seek out only those agencies that have programs to educate you about potential issues unique to internationally adopted children and who make every possible effort to obtain as much background information on their referrals as possible.

Evaluate an agency’s commitment to fair and ethical practices. Reputable agencies have a priority to serve the children.  Ask about professional affiliations, such as the Joint Council on International Children’s Services and the Council on Accreditation.  Ask about their humanitarian programs for the welfare of children and birthmothers in-country.

Educate yourself on adoption rules and regulations in your country of interest, including the adoptability of individual children as well as the adoption of children in general.  Verify that the agency is able to describe in detail how it follows the laws and guidelines of both domestic and international governments and how it assists adopting families in making sure that they also meet all laws and guidelines.

There are numerous good reasons to work with a non-profit agency.  Check out an agency’s non-profit status at www.guidestar.org and www.bbb.org.  Ask the agency for their recent annual report that describes their organization, their budgets (revenues and expenses) and programs. Look for fiscal accountability, as you will want to know that the agency is in good financial standing.  Also look to see how the agency spends leftover funds.  What percentage of funds is spent on administration?

Research your agency carefully for various complaints and legal actions.  Check with the Better Business Bureau.  Also check out an agency with the licensing authority in all states in which they are licensed and ask for a record of complaints.  The authority is usually the state’s Department of Social Services or Department of Health and Human Services, except in the case of an adoption agency operating under a lawyer’s license, in which case the authority is the state’s Bar Association.  A good source for this is www.stateinformation.com or http://www.childwelfare.gov/nad/index.cfm.  Also ask about any criminal actions or complaints at an agency’s home state’s Attorney General Office.  A list of Attorney General Offices for each state can be found at www.naag.org.  Contact the US Embassy in the capital city of the foreign country you are considering.  Ask about specific agencies working in adoption and child welfare in that country. Also, take the opportunity to find out from the US Embassy how adoptions in that country are going. Does that information match what you have been told by the agency?

Use a legal search engine such as www.loislaw.com or www.versuslaw.com to find out if one of the agencies you’re considering has had previous legal problems.  Use current and previously used corporate names, and states in which the agency operates.  Some of the legal search engines have one-week free trials. 

Review an agency’s grievance policy, provision for refunds, and be sure there is no gag clause in the contract (forbidding adoptive parents from speaking freely about their adoption experience). 

Expenses
The agency should give you a well-defined list of services provided and costs, fees, expenses, and when they are due.   Find out what other costs may be expected of you (i.e. translation fees, interpreter and driver costs, gifts, orphanage donation, etc.)  There should be little money due up-front and not until after the referral and first trip has been made.  Usually one can expect to pay as services are rendered.

Try to get an itemized breakdown of where the foreign fees go and try to confirm that in the foreign country. What you are trying to learn is if the agency is marking-up and keeping the difference between actual foreign fees and what they charge you (engaging in unethical practices), without disclosing this to you. Another consideration here is that you want to know where every penny of your adoption money goes so that you can be assured that things like corruption, baby-buying and profiteering were not part of your adoption process. This is what is meant by a “transparent” process of expenses.  Ask for a complete itemization of costs.

Find out about provisions for refunds.  Ask if you will be expected to carry large amounts of cash on your person when traveling overseas.  Expect receipts for all monies paid, both in the US and in-country.  Be wary of signing a fee agreement that doesn’t allow you to cancel the agreement if the agency increases its fees.

References
You will learn a lot about an agency by thoroughly checking references.  Be sure that the reference list provided by the agency includes clients who have recently completed their adoptions and those who have returned for subsequent adoptions.  Know that it is likely that an agency will only give out references of families who have had a smooth adoption process.  It is to your benefit to find your own references as well.  Join local parent support groups and Internet forums to connect with parents who have adopted through the agencies you are investigating. Try to get references that are at different stages in their adoption process and those who have completed their adoptions at different times. Try to find adoptive families similar to your situation (single parent, older parent, older child, etc.). 

Review online agency evaluations at www.groups.yahoo.com/group/Adoption_Agency_Research, www.adoptachild.org/ICAR, and www.adoptingfromrussia.com/AgencyInfo.html, although not all responses there may recent.  

Listen to clients who had difficulties with their agencies. While no agency has a problem-free record, one should be concerned if a pattern exists. Determine how an agency responds to and handles problems.  An agency is really as good as its ability to problem-solve and communicate when problems arise.

Red Flags:

  • Large amount of money due upfront.
  • Lawsuits or out-of-court settlements, or complaint reports to the BBB, licensing agency, or Attorney General’s office
  • Gag clause in contract
  • Not accredited
  • No copy of contract until after fees are sent
  • Vague payment schedule
  • Those that promise a child before a family assessment
  • Non-compliance with foreign and domestic government rules and regulations

Request from the Adoption Agency:

  • Detailed list of ALL costs, fees, expenses, and when they are due.
  • Agency financial information (reports and statements) of the past year.
  • Any paperwork you will need to sign (contracts, liability waivers, confidentiality agreements).

 

Grievance policy

  • Refund provisions.
  • References of families that have adopted from the agency, including repeat clients.

 Forty Questions for Adoption Agency

  1. How long have you been placing children from (country)?
  2. How many (country) adoptions did you complete in the last year?
  3. Is your agency accredited in (country)?  When was your license obtained?   When does it expire?
  4. Do you plan to obtain Hague Treaty Accreditation?
  5. Who supports the family when they are in country?  Are they employees of the agency?  Subcontractors?  How long have they been employed?  What services do they provide?  How is your staff compensated?  Are they paid a set salary (preferred) or on a “per adoption” basis?  Get names.
  6. How do you communicate with the facilitator?   What is the response time when you have questions?
  7. What trouble-shooting plans do you have in place for clients who have problems once they are in country?  How and with whom do clients communicate in case of problems?
  8. How many failed adoptions have you had?  Why did they fail? (Problems in court, release letter difficulties, difficult orphanage directors, child suddenly became unavailable?)
  9. How and when do adoptive families communicate with you?  What is your response time to questions?  What are your hours?  When are you available?  If you are not available, whom can I talk to?  How often will I be updated on the status of our adoption?
  10. How many staff and support personnel work for your agency? How many part-time and how many full-time?  Any subcontractors? 
  11. Can you tell me about the educational and professional background of your professional staff?  Are any of them licensed social workers that specialize in adoption?  Who will be my contact person?
  12. Does your organization concentrate on placing infants or older children?
  13. What type of adoptive parents does the agency seek?
  14. Can I choose the gender/age/health of my child?  Who does the matching of child with families?
  15. In the age group I am interested in, how many children have you placed in the last year from (country)?
  16. Tell me your agency’s experience working with families like mine (single parent, older child, etc.)
  17. In what regions do you pursue adoptions?  Are there any regions that seem to be more problematic than others?  Why?  May I choose from your regions?
  18. Do you anticipate (country) restrictions changing?
  19. How stable is (country) at this time?
  20. What preparation classes, seminars, or readings does the agency require of the adoptive parents?  What services do you offer post-adoption?  Counseling for adoption issues?  Heritage camps?  Reunions?
  21. In the age group I am interested in, what is the approximate timeline of that each stage of the process is likely to take?  Ex. dossier to referral, first trip, second trip, etc.
  22. What referral information will I receive?  How long do I have to decide on a referral?
  23. Do you encourage/allow families to obtain an independent review of a referral by an international adoption physician?  How is that arranged?
  24. What will happen if we decline a referral (here or in-country)?  Does your agency restrict the reasons for which we can decline a referral?
  25. What medical tests are performed on the babies/children before they are referred to families?
  26. How do you help prepare clients for the adoption trip?  Do you help make travel arrangements?
  27. What are the conditions of the orphanages in the regions in which you work?  How many caregivers per child?  How are you informed of the quality of care in the orphanages?  Does someone from your agency visit frequently?
  28. What will happen to the status of our adoption process if a death occurs in our family?  Child conceived?  Move or job change occurs?
  29. What if the adoption doesn’t work out?
  30. Do you ask clients to sign any type of confidentiality agreement?
  31. How does the agency handle complaints?  Is there a formal grievance procedure?  May I have a copy of it?
  32. What are your provisions for refunds?
  33. Do you provide a contract that spells out my responsibilities toward the adoption as well as what you are responsible for?
  34. To the best of your knowledge, has anyone ever filed any complaints or lawsuits against your agency?   If so, what cause of actions were in the complaint?  What is the case number, county in which it was filed, outcome of the litigation, settlement info, verdict info?  Is anyone named as a defendant in that lawsuit still employed by the agency?
  35. How many of your placements in the past 3 years have fallen apart before or after the adoption was finalized?
  36. Please list all costs, fees, expenses, and when they are due. Will we need to make cash payments in-country?  Will we get receipts for all monies paid, both in the US and overseas?
  37. What specifically does the agency fee cover?  Does it include dossier preparation?  Document translations?  Document legalization?  Long-distance phone calls, postage, and courier?  Other support services programs (humanitarian efforts)?
  38. What specifically does the country fee include?  Does it include driver and translator while in country?
  39. What professional affiliations does your agency have?
  40. What humanitarian programs does your agency conduct in-country to assist children, birthmothers, etc.?

 

Questions for Agency References

    • When did you complete your adoption with this agency?
    • From which country did you adopt?
    • How did you like the staff in the US-based office?
    • How did the agency communicate with you?  What was the length of time for the agency to respond to your questions?
    • Did they keep you up-to-date on the process?
    • Was the agency professional?
    • Describe the fee schedule.  Was it as they said?  Any hidden costs?
    • How did your agency handle problems or complaints for you?  How was the process?  Smooth?  Rocky?
    • Any experiences with declining a referral in the US or in the foreign country?  How was that handled?
    • How did you like the in-country support?  Did you have a specific guide?  Get names.
    • How were the accommodations?  (agency guesthouse, specific hotel agency uses)
    • Did the process unfold close to how the agency predicted?
    • What was the timeline of each stage of the process?
    • Did you travel blind, or what information did you receive about your referral prior to travel?
    • How much time were you given to decide on a potential referral? 
    • How was your child matched with your family?  (Foreign government, facilitator, etc.?)
    • How were specific requests for age/gender/health received?  How well did your child match your age/gender/health preferences?
    • What was the age of your child?
    • Was consultation with an international adoption physician encouraged?  How was that arranged?
    • How could have your agency been better?
    • Would you use this agency again?   Why or why not?

 

Resources and References
Adopt A Child.org info and inter-country adoption registry www.adoptachild.org
Adopting From Russia Agency info/survey www.adoptingfromrussia.com/AgencyInfo.html 
 Adoption Agency Checklist www.adoptionagencychecklist.com
Adoption Agency Research Yahoo Group www.groups.yahoo.com/group/Adoption_Agency_Research
Adoption.com   www.adoption.com

Adoptive Families www.adoptivefamilies.com/support and www.theadoptionguide.com

Attorney General Offices www.naag.org

Better Business Bureau www.bbb.org

Child Welfare Information Gateway www.childwelfare.gov

Come Unity www.comeunity.com/adoption

Eastern European Adoption Coalition www.eeadopt.org

Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption (FRUA) Chat www.frua.org/messages/chat

Guidestar non-profit info www.guidestar.org

Joint Council on International Children’s Services Membership Directory www.jcics.org/Membership Directory.htm

Karen’s Adoption Links—List of adoption listserves www.karensadoptionlinks.com/lists.html
Questions to Ensure That an Adoption Provider is Ethical.  Cynthia Teeters, Eastern European Adoption Coalition, Inc. www.eeadopt.org
Russian Embassy www.russianembassy.org
State Information Locator www.stateinformation.com
“Shopping for an Adoption Agency” Adoption Information Service, Seattle, WA
Thinking of Adopting www.ThinkingOfAdopting.com
US Citizenship and Immigration Services www.uscis.gov
US Dept of State Bureau of Consular Affairs Intercountry Adoption www.travel.state.gov/family/adoption
US Embassy in Russia www.moscow.usembassy.gov 
Yahoo Groups www.groups.yahoo.com

 

 

 

 

Please contact Carrie Kitze for information on obtaining reprints of this article for pre and post adoption kits and seminars.

 

 

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