Priceless That's how adoptive parents describe their children. But adoption is also a financial transaction. A look at the intersection of money and miracles.
(MONEY Magazine) – Alana West had had enough. West, an actress and set costumer, had spent years in infertility treatments and was on the brink of taking the next step, in vitro fertilization. But as she stood in the lobby of a doctor's office one day in 1999, she spotted a young woman weeping in the arms of a companion. She stared at the couple and saw her own reflection. She turned to her husband Tom and said, "I can't do this. I just can't." And he replied, "You don't have to. We're adopting."
"We just said, 'This is insane,'" Tom recalls. "For roughly the same amount of money, we could get a healthy child, already in this world, in need of parents as much as we are in need of a child."
As the Wests would be the first to say, adoption can be full of magic. "Now I simply can't imagine having done anything else," says Alana, as she introduces Ariana, 2 1/2, adopted from China in September 2000. "There is such a passion behind parents who adopt." Amy Donders, who, along with her husband Lloyd, adopted 10-month-old Joshua last February, puts it this way: "The most precious gift I will ever receive came from a total stranger."
At the same time, as the people who help more than 40,000 American families adopt every year explain, adoption is also a financial transaction. "Families need to be realistic about what their budget is and what is financially feasible for them," says Gretchen Viederman, the director of the domestic adoption program at Spence-Chapin, a major private agency in New York City. "They have to be savvy."
One outspoken New Yorker, the father of an adopted six-year-old, has a more controversial take: "The people who do the best are those who realize that what you're doing is buying a human being, no matter how uncomfortable that makes you feel. Once you see it as a marketplace and you're the buyer, it brings a certain clarity to things."
But it's hard to be analytical about an experience as emotionally fraught as adoption--particularly after months or years of failed attempts at conception. It involves asking yourself many of the same kinds of questions you should consider before taking any significant financial step. What exactly do we want? An infant? A baby who looks like us? How much of the process do we want to manage ourselves? Agencies find adoptable children and handle paperwork. Lawyers can guide and legalize private placements, but much work remains in the parents' hands. Is the person or institution I'll be dealing with reputable and experienced? Finally, how much will this cost? And how much can we afford? Ariana's adoption cost the Wests just over $14,000; Jabari Hurdle-Price's, less than $5,000; Alex Shoemacher's, $29,000. Every choice has a price--and often there are trade-offs. Rules vary state by state, and pricing policies, agency by agency. And luck plays a part.
"It's a little bit like going to Atlantic City," observes Michael Mandel, a New Jersey attorney who has adopted two sons. "You take $500 and when it's gone, you don't look back."
"A HEALTHY BABY ON A GIVEN TIMETABLE"
Not so long ago, New Yorkers Tom and Alana West were so immersed in life in the theater--he is a writer and director--that they didn't think about children. "We were very career-driven," Alana says. "We were going to travel the world and live out of suitcases."
When they decided to adopt, their first step was to sign on with Spence-Chapin's international program. They had concluded that domestic adoption was far too risky for them. "The one thing about adoption is that you learn a lot about what you can and cannot take," Alana says. "And one of the things that I couldn't have happen to me was to have a birth mother come back and change her mind. If you're going to promise me the baby, I have to know it's mine."
Her husband agrees: "We needed to know that we would have a healthy baby on a given timetable."
They settled on China, partly because they wanted a girl. Plus, their age--they were in their mid-forties--precluded them from adopting from some other countries. "Each country is unique," says Paige Smith, the vice president of communications for the Gladney Center for Adoption in Fort Worth. "There are differences in terms of the couple's age, how long they've been married, will they allow for single parents, divorced parents and so forth." In the case of China, you must be 30 to 45 years old to adopt a baby; people over 45 get toddlers and those from 50 to 55, school-age children.
Once they began working with Spence-Chapin, the Wests moved quickly to solidify their somewhat unpredictable lifestyle and finances. Tom took a "real job," as he puts it, with Dow Jones & Co., training employees to use pagination software. And Alana took on more work doing wardrobe for several plays and television shows. "To adopt, we had to appear to be solid, and we also needed the money," Alana says. "Unless you're independently wealthy, you have to fit the norm."
Some international adoptions cost as much as $30,000, others as little as $10,000. But the costs are predictable, driven largely by travel costs and the country fee--the bulk of which goes to the government, an orphanage, a social agency, or individuals who act as intermediaries. This predictability was an advantage for the Wests. So was Spence-Chapin's sliding scale: Fees are based on the family's adjusted gross income from the previous year. "The prior year for us had been terrible," Tom says. "What that meant was we were going into the process not having a lot of money in our pockets." Spence charged the Wests just over $3,000, which covered the home study, education and counseling, document preparation and post-adoption care. The fee to China was $6,600: $3,000 to Ariana's orphanage and the rest for the application and legal fees in China, the agency representative who traveled with the Wests in China and various expenses overseas.
When it came to paying for the adoption, the Wests did it in three installments. "We collected it along the way," says Alana. "It was improv. But I think it's the same as when people get pregnant and have babies. The only difference is your insurance covers a lot of the pregnancy." Luckily, Dow Jones offers an adoption benefit of $2,000. And they saved several thousand dollars by traveling coach to China. "Everybody said, if you have to mortgage your house, fly business," Tom says. "We got our notice about Ariana two weeks before we traveled," Alana interjects. "And let me tell you, the cost of traveling that distance two weeks ahead of time in business class is astronomical, so that argument got settled real fast." What they saved, says Tom, "is a nice start on a college fund."
The Wests have since applied for another Chinese daughter. Spence reduces its fee for a second international adoption by 40%, so the Wests expect that their second adoption will cost about the same as the first, despite the fact that their income has increased. "Now it'll be two girls having to share the same experience of having these two weird white parents," Alana laughs. "And they can turn to each other and go, 'How did we get here?' And they won't be alone."
A GIFT FROM THE SKY
Unlike the Wests, Eileen McCormick, 38, and her husband John Leonard, 39, had envisioned life with babies from the minute they met in college. "We are total kids people," says McCormick, who until recently was in the design department of Factset, a financial information firm in Greenwich, Conn. Her husband is a high school math teacher.
They expected to start a family in their early thirties. When that didn't happen, they sought infertility treatment. Then they attended a six-week course on adoption sponsored by the American Infertility Association. One night, the group discussed Korea. Recalls Eileen: "We walked out of that meeting saying, 'That's it. We're going to adopt from Korea.'" Adoptable Korean children are placed in foster homes and, by and large, receive excellent medical and emotional care; that minimizes the developmental problems that often face children who've been institutionalized--problems that can have hefty financial and psychological costs down the road. Although the Korean country fee is $13,000, would-be parents don't have to travel there, which saves money. (Carefully screened escorts have part of their air fare paid by Spence-Chapin.)
There is, of course, a trade-off: a certain heightened anxiety as you sit at home waiting for your baby to arrive. Mack was born in September 2001. Five months later, on a rainy, foggy afternoon, Eileen and John, along with some 35 friends and relatives, awaited his arrival at JFK International Airport. The couple had been tracking the flight on the Internet all week, and every day it had been coming in early. That day the plane was late--and Mack and his escort were the last ones off the plane. When she saw him, McCormick recalls, "I was sobbing. There wasn't a dry eye in the place."
Mack's adoption through Spence-Chapin cost some $21,000, including Spence's fee of just over $6,000, $1,500 for the attorney who finalized the adoption stateside and some $500 for miscellaneous expenses, including photocopying, documentation and Immigration and Naturalization Service fees.
To pay for the adoption, the couple refinanced their house in Pound Ridge, N.Y. Since then they've moved to Connecticut, and Eileen has left her job to freelance. "We're making a lifestyle change for him," she says. "We went through a lot to get Mack here, so we would like it if one of us could stay home with him."
A FREQUENT-FLIER FAMILY
For Doug and Shannon Shoemacher, Fort Worth accountants in their early thirties, adoption-related travel cost $6,000--even though they used frequent-flier miles for half of their flights. The reason: They adopted from Russia, which requires that prospective parents make the long trip twice. Their decision came after they heard a couple who had adopted a Russian baby speak at the Gladney Center. In March 2000, they adopted Alex. Two years later, Anna joined the family. Each adoption cost $29,000.
Russia is one of the more expensive programs, but the Shoemachers were able to cover the bills without having to dip into their retirement accounts or refinance their house. And by the time they adopted Anna, Doug's company had instituted a $5,000 reimbursement for adoption expenses.
"I'm thankful we were prepared, because our lifestyle hasn't taken a huge hit," says Shannon. "The thing about international adoption is that you've come home and you've just spent your child's college tuition getting him or her over here. You come back and you're almost starting at zero!"
THE ROLLER COASTER
Once you begin asking about domestic adoptions, you'll hear that they all cost $30,000. Or that they're more expensive than international ones--or that they're cheaper. But one of the few reliable generalizations is that predicting how long a domestic adoption will take and how much it will cost is difficult. (One reason is that 70% to 80% of domestic adoptions are handled privately, not through agencies, according to Washington, D.C. lawyer Mark McDermott.) The usual simile: It's like a roller-coaster ride.
Take the experience of Carol and Bill Alderson, both 43, of North Bethesda, Md. Carol evaluates research grants for the National Institutes of Health and Bill is a construction manager. On a winter Saturday in 1999, they drove two hours to a Denny's restaurant in rural Maryland to meet a young girl who had responded to their newspaper ad. They knew that she'd be a teenager and that she'd likely be alone. They found her sitting in a booth by the window, fiddling with a napkin. They assumed that she wouldn't ask many questions, but they'd brought a family album and a letter explaining who they were and why they so wanted a new baby. And they prayed that it would work.
It didn't. "She never called us back," sighs Carol Alderson. "They never call you back and say 'I changed my mind.'"
The couple's journey to Denny's followed a half-dozen rounds of in vitro fertilization, at $5,000 to $8,000 each, only two of which were fully covered by insurance. By the sixth round, Carol looked into private domestic adoption because, she explains, the couple wanted "the newborn experience.... The thing that's attractive about private adoption is that people who've spent a lot of time being told what they can and cannot do by infertility specialists can take charge."
The Aldersons contacted McDermott, who advised them how to arrange a home study with a social worker and advertise to prospective birth mothers. They set up an 800 number and began running ads in Maryland newspapers in January 1999 for $400 to $500 a month, charged on their Visa card. "Loving, childless couple looks to adopt infant or twins. Will pay legal and medical expenses. We have great respect for birth mothers," the ad read. Several calls didn't pan out. Then, in May, a young woman called. The couple met their son Chris when he was a minute old and took him home the next day, after McDermott arranged for legal custody.
To pay for the adoption, they tapped their savings. The final tab totaled $11,000. That included McDermott's fee of $5,000; $1,400 for the birth mother's lawyer; $2,500 in advertising; $800 for Chris' hospitalization (his birth mother had insurance); $800 for a home study; and $500 for miscellaneous expenses, such as documentation.
Chris' adoption went smoothly--especially compared with their 2 1/2-year pursuit of a second child. Already they've spent $16,000 on ads. "After in vitro," Carol muses, "you've become a home-grown expert on spending a lot of money without being sure of the return.... But I don't think people are aware of the emotional risks of private adoption."
TAKING THE AGENCY ROUTE
One advantage of using an agency for a domestic adoption is that costs are defined in advance. There's no possibility that advertising costs will drag on or that the birth mother will have huge medical bills and no insurance. That's one reason that Warren Price and Lynn Hurdle-Price of the Bronx went to Spence-Chapin when they decided to adopt. Another reason was the program that Spence-Chapin, like many private agencies, has set up to encourage the adoption of African-American babies. "Because there are so many African-American babies who really are in need of homes," says Lynn, 44, who works in conflict resolution, "the fees are more reasonable." Jabari's 1995 adoption cost $4,300; Na'im's in 2001 was $2,600, thanks to a second-time discount from Spence-Chapin.
Like the Wests, Lynn and Warren took advantage of the installment plan. "You know how much it's going to cost, so you can begin to get the money, and it's at your pace," explains Warren, 41, a social worker. "You don't do the next step until you're ready, so you have control."
The couple's experience working in the New York City public school system convinced them to do all they could to enroll their children in private school. Jabari currently attends Fieldston School, not far from their apartment, on a partial scholarship. "With adoption, particularly when you've met the birth parents as we did," says Lynn, "you feel somewhere deep inside that you must do more for the child." Warren concurs. "You agreed to take someone else's child," he explains, "so you're dutybound to do the right thing. Because they chose you to give him a life that they didn't think they could provide."
For Elly and Edward Schelswell-White, finances were not a major concern when they decided to adopt through Gladney. Elly, 41, a media consultant, and Edward, 40, a property manager for Southwest Airlines, had no debt and considerable assets. What mattered was the agency's approach. "Gladney's commitment to serving all three parts of an adoption--the child, the adoptive parents and the birth mom--was extremely important to us," says Elly.
In December 2001, they were matched with a birth mother who was living in a home on the agency's campus. Since Victoria was born, they have maintained a relationship with the birth mother and members of her family, many of whom attended Victoria's first birthday party. Says Elly: "We are thrilled that we'll be able to show Victoria photos of her on her first birthday, surrounded by love."
The couple has started to work with Gladney toward a second adoption. "I don't have that many bad days at work," says Edward. "But sometimes we all do. And when I come home and walk in the door, all my problems evaporate the minute I see her--the second she smiles at me." Or as he wrote in a recent e-mail:
Grand Total = $24,235
Baby Victoria = Priceless.