In exploring the industry of adoption, it is fundamental to first explain why there is a market for children in the first place. Why do adults choose to adopt babies and children who are biologically unrelated to them?
- Infertility: A heterosexual couple is unable to create and/or carry a biological child. This includes secondary infertility (infertility after the birth of one or more biological children.)
- Need help: Parents are unable to have a child without reproductive assistance. This includes infertile couples that do not wish to use medical assistance, lesbian and gay couples, and single parents.
- Health: Concerns about passing on a genetic disorder in the mother’s or father’s family. Pregnancy could cause the health of the mother to be seriously impaired. The mother and/or family have been exposed to certain elements (chemical, medical, etc.) that may cause birth defects.
- Choosing gender: A family with two or more biological children of the same gender adopt in order to parent a child of the opposite gender. The adopted child is almost always a girl. (These families usually choose international adoption because the children are already born, although some domestic adoption agencies allow adoptive parents to specify gender.)
- Personal beliefs: Parents who adopt for religious or philosophical reasons. This includes preferential adopters.
The domestic infant adoption system caters to one group of prospective adoptive parents: heterosexual, White, middle and upper class, infertile, married couples (the great majorities of groups 1 & 3, and much of group 2). This system has broadened itself a bit; certain agencies now accommodate same-sex couples and/or single parents (mostly mothers), and a handful of infant adoption agencies actively recruit parents/families of color (The Cradle and Pact are two of the biggest nonsectarian names). Still, virtually all agencies are focused on families who cannot have children without assistance (groups 1, 2, & 3), and many agencies actually will not work with fertile couples.
Adoption fees rule out most potential adoptive parents who are not at least middle-class. Current domestic infant adoption fees for a healthy* baby, of any race, usually run in the $18,000-$30,000 range. This includes homestudy, paperwork, agency fees, legal fees, and living expenses for a pregnant woman. Travel costs, medical expenses (for baby and mother), and legal complications can push the cost even higher. International adoption fees vary by country, but costs often run higher than domestic adoption. About 40% of international adoptions and 20% of domestic infant adoptions cost more than $30,000.
*A note on the domestic infant adoption system definition of a healthy baby. A baby who is classified as ‘healthy’ includes a baby who was prenatally drug and/or alcohol exposed, was born prematurely, has no birthfather medical/social information (i.e. ‘unknown birthfather’), has a birthfamily history of moderate mental health problems and/or a birthfamily history of moderate genetically-transferable medical conditions. When a baby appears to be healthy at birth (no apparent physical, mental, or serious medical handicaps), that baby is part of the mainstream adoptive placement system, including standard fees. Fees are often reduced substantially for infants who are born with clear disabilities, have been prenatally exposed to extremely high levels of alcohol and/or illegal drugs, or have two birthparents who have mental health diagnoses.
When calculating adoption costs, there is the often misunderstood $10,000 federal adoption tax credit. The funds from this tax credit are not available until after an adoption has been legally finalized (usually 6-8 months after the placement of a child); adoptive parents must come up with all the money for adoption fees and expenses up front. In addition, this is a non-refundable tax credit; the tax credit is deducted from the federal tax a family owes over a period of up to five years. In adoption literature, it is often noted that a family is eligible for the adoption tax credit unless a family’s income exceeds federal restrictions (meaning: modified adjusted gross income of more than $204,000). It is never noted that if a family does not make enough money to owe any federal income tax (total income of less than $45,000/year for a family of four) the family does not qualify for the adoption tax credit. If a family owes less than $2,000/year in federal income tax, they will not receive the full adoption tax credit ($2,000 x 5 years = $10,000). NOTE: 4% of families in the U.S. make more than $200,000/year, while 40% of families in the United States make less than $50,000/year.
The majority of prospective adoptive parents waiting in the domestic adoption system fit the description of the people to which the system caters: White, middle/upper class, infertile, married, heterosexual couples. The great majority of these prospective parents are seeking a certain type of baby: usually White (at least 80%), and often also with a very healthy** social/medical family history (**very healthy meaning not only apparently healthy at birth, but also including not prenatally drug or alcohol exposed, no mental illness or major medical issues in either side of the birthfamily, full-term delivery, birthparents not in prison, and often more). Even so, White newborns with health issues, premature birth, mild to moderate birthfamily medical/social history issues, ‘unknown’ birthfather, or minor disabilities are still very desirable to these prospective adoptive parents.
The domestic infant adoption system does not easily accommodate adoptive parents who are outside the target prospective adoptive parent population. (The target adoptive-parent-client population excludes portions of groups 1-4, and all of group 5.) In addition, if a prospective adoptive parent is prepared to care for a child of any race who has been prenatally drug and/or alcohol exposed or has moderate to serious, multiple, or unknown birthfamily medical/social issues, why would they choose domestic infant adoption ($18,000-$30,000 or more in fees) instead of foster care adoption (often less than $2,000 in fees)? The more open a prospective adoptive family is, the less likely they are part of the domestic infant adoption system.
Prospective adoptive parents who fall outside the targeted adoptive parent population (especially working or lower-middle class families, People of Color, and fertile couples) are more likely to choose foster adoption or toddler/older child international adoption-for many different reasons. Because they have family or personal connections to another country. Because they have lived abroad or traveled extensively. Because they know what it’s like to be involved with Child and Family Services. Because they themselves were in foster care. Because they are not afraid (rightly or not) of the issues and history children in foster care, older children, and/or institutionalized children may bring home. Because they have already raised their biological children from infancy, and would prefer to parent older children. Because they want to ‘help’ a child who has less opportunity for a family. Because they know how many children of color are in foster care or orphanages–and how long these children wait for a family.
This is where the domestic adoption ‘market’ becomes extremely unbalanced. Prospective adoptive parents are overwhelmingly White, and they are seeking White babies. (However, it must be noted that Black American families adopt at twice the rate of White American families.) There is a racial hierarchy of adoption. Certain babies, through the unearned privilege of their racial ancestry, are easier to place in an adoptive family. From most prospective adoptive families waiting to least families waiting, the racial hierarchy ranges from light to dark, from undeveloped White American history to most complex; the newborns who are most quickly matched with an adoptive family have White (also known as European American) ancestry, then Asian ancestry, Hispanic/Latino ancestry, Native American ancestry, and finally Black ancestry. In adoption, girls are also easier to place than boys; thus, the easiest child to find an adoptive family for is a White girl, the most difficult is a Black boy. Biracial and multiracial children are shuttled to their ‘darkest’ heritage in the racial hierarchy. Thus, finding an adoptive family for a biracial Black/White boy is similar to finding a family for a ‘full’ Black boy (full Black meaning two Black-identifying biological parents). Within the infant adoption system, it is still common to read or hear descriptions of pregnant women that include the shade of their skin, or even the fair skin-tone of a newborn biracial baby. (The latter could only be information offered by White professionals with no experience with infants/people of color.)
As long as the practice and process of adoption remains an ‘industry’, prospective adoptive parents will be regarded as ‘customers’. In such a system, infants, children, and mothers will necessarily continue to be viewed and treated as merchandise, objects to be marketed to the paying clientele (as in the misleading ‘light-skinned’ biracial newborn). It is an oft-repeated phrase in many corners of the adoption system nowadays that adoption agencies are looking for families for children, not children for families. This statement must become the blanket truth about adoption.
Following segments will address supply in the adoption system (including domestic infants, children in foster care, international infants/toddlers, international older children, and systemic birthparent/family coercion), whether adoption is necessary (including what can be done to lower the ‘need’ for adoptive families), adoption ethics and the rights of mothers (including pregnant women), specific coverage of foster care adoption and international adoption (including a more in-depth exploration of the reasons parents choose different types of adoption), gender choice in adoption, and transracial adoption (including the racial and country hierarchies within transracial adoption).
Please feel free to ask questions in the comments; I will try to address them within the upcoming series segments. A full bibliography for the entire series will be available.