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Establishing the differences between adopting from the UK or from overseas

When you come to adoption there are a thousand questions on which path/journey you should take. One of the most important ones is the choice between domestic or international adoption. Here are the pros and cons of each choice.

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Once the seed to adopt has been planted in your heart, you now have to go about finding your child!

 We are here to help you find you child and bring him or her home. We want to ease the process for you and guide you in making the most appropriate choice for you and your family.  We perceive the adoption process to be a journey and like any journey the more prepared you are the smoother and easier it is. However, you cannot anticipate all the events that are likely to happen when you step out in unknown terrain, but with a solid grounding behind you and the support you find here, we hope the hiccups will be minimized and quickly overcome.

So the first question is 'Is your child here in the UK or is he or she somewhere else in the world?'  As I write this I realised how bizarre this sounds. To be successful you hae to suspend your original ideas and expectations of creating your family and open yourself to the possibilities waiting for you.

We, in the adoption community, believe that our children are calling us and it is up to us to stop, listen, hear, feel that heart string being pulled and then go out and find them.

My son and I have a special story that we share about 'the red string':

I was sitting one day drinking some coffee, in the beautiful Autumn sunshine, when I suddenly felt this pull on my heart.  It was a real tug and I thought, 'Oi, what's this?'.  I tried to ignore it, but it kept on coming back, tugging even harder. "I have to find out what is going on",  I thought to myself.  So the very next time it happened, I looked and felt very closely and  what did I find?  A red string. Yes, there was a red string attached to my heart and something or someone was tugging it.  Well, I had no choice, I had to follow this string to see where it led and who was pulling it.  Needless to say, it was my son, sitting in his orphanage no. 12, in the middle of Russia,  thinking 'That's my mom' and I am going to get her to come here and take me  out of this place!'  And that is how he found me and I found him.  


We are always told that charity begins at home and of course in a simple and ideal world one would adopt domestically if that was one's choice. However, the world is neither simple nor ideal and the chance or the opportunity to adopt domestically may not be that easy.There is much information about domestic adoption available. But I would just like to highlight to you the differences of adopting a child from the UK or a child from abroad.


What is the difference?

All children need a loving family and a stable home, be they from Coventry or Columbia. I personally see no difference, although I do acknowledge that society can and does. When you come to making your family as opposed to creating it, there are some very deep-rooted and meaningful values that shape how your understand the world and which will determine what path you take. Do not fear being judged (we won't  in this safe secure environment). If you only want a child that is the same skin colour as you, that's OK. If you only want a boy, that's OK, if you only want a child with dark hair and brown eyes, that's Ok, if you only want a child that is 100 percent healthy, that's OK, if you don't want a younger child , that's OK. If you would like any child that is cool too! The idea and the process is complicated enough without compromising on your vision.  It may come to pass that one thing that you thought was a real sticking point, ends up not to be.  And when thought you definitely wanted a girl, you realise that that  little boy is meant to be your child. Being open to what life is going to offer you, will hold you in good stead.


No child who is available for adoption is problem or issue free. They have all had a very bad start to life. How one deals with the inevitable consequences of being abandoned, neglected, abused, is as individual as the number of children who find themselves in these situations, through no fault of their own.

Studies have shown that growing up in an orphanage is detrimental to one's development because of the lack of simulation, poor care, and no primary carer.

Thomas MacDonald's study on Assessing the Long-Term Effects of Foster Care shows that adults placed in childhood out-of-home care had poorer school performance; higher rates of school dropout, public assistance, homelessness, arrest, and chemical dependency; lower marriage rates; and poorer mental and physical health. They typically maintain contact with at least one biological family member, have reasonable social support systems, and do not differ from the general population in unemployment rate. Factors associated with outcomes include the type of placement, reason for admission, age at placement and discharge, number of placements, time in care, disposition, caseworker activity, and contact and closeness with biological and foster families.

Domestically, the children have a taste of family life, but it is intermittent and changes often, thus trust becomes an issue.  Internationally, 'home' is stable but there is no personal attention and the children are devoid of any sense of relationship normalcy.


Children available

 It has been reported that the average child in the UK has been in 5 foster homes by the time they are five years old.  Foster care and care homes are methods that the UK uses to look after its children without parental care. The conventional wisdom in the UK is to keep children with their parents as long as possible, and if that fails, to put them temporarily in foster care until the family situation improves. The child will then go back into the birth family home until the situation worsens and then the child is again removed and placed in another foster home. I am not saying that this is always the scenario but it is a frequent one.  Foster homes vary from being absolutely fantastic to very poor, but they are always in a home environment and with a family.

Generally, but not exclusively, children overseas are looked in orphanages, run either privately or by the state. These may vary in size from small ones housing about 20 children, to multi-story institutions that house over 200.  Children are usually placed into these facilities by authorities because they have been abandoned, their parents have relinquished them due to poverty or they have been removed  from their parents for reasons of neglect or abuse. Foster care is becoming more popular in some countries as they roll out better services and appreciate the support needed for vulnerable children and families. Institutions which are proving to be more successful are those designed as a care home, where children are placed in mixed age and sex groups of maximum 20 with a full time a house parent e.g. Harare Children's Home.

Obviously, neither of these two methods are ideal and both have repercussions on the children. Trust - domestically, and primary carer  - internationally. One thing that international adopters believe, as opposed to the thinking of the social services, is that love, security, support, attention and good parenting, with intervention if needed, will overcome the detrimental effects of these children's unfortunate beginnings.

Here, in the UK, the conventional wisdom is that looked after children are damaged goods and this is a mark they will carry with them for the whole of their lives.

(These comments are coming from personal experience, experience of other adopters and research.)

Foster care vs Institution care is a contentious issue with regard to the long-term effects on children, but what is apparent everywhere, is that adoption is the best option for these children, where they will have a chance to lead a normal family life, in a secure and loving home. 


Situation of orphans

 Poverty: Very few children in the UK are in foster care because of poverty, which is one of the major factors of abandonment across the world.  The financial pressures of bringing up a child, or  yet another child  is sometimes too much to bear, and young mothers relinquish their children knowing that at least they will have a roof over their heads and food in their stomach.


Maltreatment: Most children today who find themselves in care are social orphans - they have parents but they have been removed from their families because of the standard of care they had been receiving.  Different countries have different policies regarding the maltreatment of children at their parents hands.  In the UK the conventional wisdom is that it is in the best interests of the child that they stay with the birth parents (there has been some recent discussion vis-a-vis this idea from Bernardos*). Thus children will be put on the At Risk Register and social workers will make frequent visits to the home to check on the children's well-being. A couple of high-profile cases eg. Baby P have highlighted the inadequacies of this system. Other countries eg. Russia, tend to remove the children from the families as soon as possible with the understanding that the state is better at looking after the children than the individual. This of course means that the children are safe, but they are removed from parental love and the family environment.


Neglect:  Domestically and internationally many children come to the state care because they have been neglected by their parents. This may occur because the parents are too young and don't have support for the challenges of bringing up a baby, or drugs may be involved.  A hooked-on-heroin mother's first priority is the next fix, children and their demands are rarely met.


Number of children available for adoption

 At present there are over 65000 children in care in the UK.  Not all of these children are available for adoption as they may be in care only on a temporary basis, whilst their home conditions are being improved.  Last year, 2300 children found permanent homes though adoption.


World wide the number of orphans or children living without parental care, is over 163 million or half the population of the United States, or the equivalent of the whole populations of Tokyo, Mexico City, New York, Mumbai, Shanghai, Moscow and Bangkok. Shocking.


In Russian there are 700 000 children living in orphanages, 21 percent of these children will be dead before they are 21. That is, 147 000 will not reach adulthood. If one can offer a child a loving and secure home, surely it is criminal not to?


About the birth parents

One of the major concerns about adoption is, who are the birth parents?  The debate of nature vs nurture still rages despite all the latest scientific research into genetics. Can poor traits be inherited? This was the belief at the turn of the century and led the eugenics movement and consequently the Holocaust. This belief still lingers and is an important consideration when it comes to adoption.  No child finds itself abandoned, abused or neglected without having parents who have made poor choices.  Whether it be personal inadequacies, societal pressures or environmental woes these are parents who cannot cope.  This does not mean that the children will grow up with these same issues in fact adoption has proved to be very constructive in many cases as these famous adoptees testify:  Roman Abramovich, Kate Adie, Johan Bach, Augustus Ceaser, Peirce Brosnan, Catherine 1, Catherine Cookson, Antony Hopkins, Jesse Jackson and the list goes on.


Physical attributes certainly are passed on and you will not be able to say, 'Oh he's got Uncle Johns nose',  or 'her father's eyes'.   But, you will be able to pick up on mannerisms, as these are copied from the parent. The first time I saw my son standing just like me, it was so funny.  I knew then, that he was my child, and this feeling cemented a little more our bond. 

Adoption specialists do try to match children's physical  features with the parents - although how much this is a science or an art I don't know.  I was standing with one of my friends, when another school mom said, 'Ah mother like daughter'. We just smiled, as her daughter is from Siberia! 



 Fortunately,  the UK government now allows trans-racial adoptions. This is a very big move and breaks down one of the most sublime rules with domestic adoption - that which previously stated they would only match children with parents of not only the same racial group but also the same ethnic match. So, for a childless French/Irish couple, they would only match them with a French/Irish child, of which there are not very many. This change in law means that there is every possibility that you may be able to adopt domestically, if the social services buy into the new government guidelines.  It is one thing to say officially that the rules are to be relaxed,  and quite another thing for it to happen on the ground.


If you are adopting internationally, obviously you are not going to be matched with a child that has the same ethnicity as you, unless you are going to your birth or heritage country.  This is something that you need to explore, and which is investigated in your pre-preparation course when you begin your adoption journey. One must be aware of the potential problems, concerns and issues that are raised from trans-racial adoption. To help you there are many articles, support groups, books and discussions on the topic, some of which can be found here. There is, at present, a research study taking place that is looking at the first Chinese adoptees who came to the UK, 50 years ago.  We await the results with interest - will mixed ethnicity in the family group have an profound effect on the adult?


If you adopt a child that is a radically different colour from yourself, then it becomes apparent to all that you have adopted, and you will face questions everyday. And there can be some very interesting questions! If the child's skin tone is slightly different from yours, it probably will not get a glance, if you live in a major metropolis and in some smaller towns perhaps a quizzical stare.  Children of the same skin tone as yourself, will very rarely come under scrutiny, and in a normal setting will pass as your own biological children. These are things that you must think and talk about, as in the initial moments of considering adoption, you may think that it is not important. However, this is something that you will be facing every second of the day, long after the whole adoption process is done and dusted.


Open and closed adoptions


The major difference between domestic and international adoptions is that UK adoptions are open and inter-country adoptions are closed.


An open adoption, is an adoption that allows for an ongoing relationship with the birth family and the adoptee. Fully open adoptions can also include ongoing relationships with extended family members such as brothers and sisters and birth grandparents. There are several degrees of openness from regular meetings with birth family to exchanges of letters and photos, to exchanged names.  Contact may occur directly or through a third-party, usually a social worker. In an open adoption, it is important that the adoptive parents and the birth parents have the same understanding of what 'open' means and that access is strictly agreed upon.  Both families must, of course, remain committed to the needs of the child throughout the child's life.


Open adoptions are complex and although some proponents think that it is the most healthy way to bring up adopted children, others see it peppered with potential problems. You have to trust the social services not to make any mistakes and you have to be fairly flexible in your upbringing of your child. You will also need to make your child fairly robust, to handle possible disappointments with their birth parents.


Adoption is a contentious issue and the wisdom surrounding it is forever changing with new policies, latest research,  more evidence coming to light, legal challenges etc. So what is legal and accepted when you begin your domestic adoption, may change over time and you must be prepared for this. The rights of the birth parent may alter and you may find yourself in court, challenging visitation rights or other such scenarios.


Closed adoption, on the other hand, means that all links with the biological family are severed and once the adoption order is made then the biological family no longer have any rights to the child.  This has the advantage that the child then becomes exclusively yours, to rear in the best way that you see fit. Almost all international adoptions are closed and in some countries the original birth certificate, naming the birth parents, is destroyed and replaced with you as the birth parents.


However, it is a natural desire for all humans to know who their parents are, and in a large percentage of cases, at one stage or another, there may be a need to search for the birth parents . This could be problematic, especially if they are thousands of miles away, and you have no clue where to look for them. Not having any information about biological parents leaves a huge gap in the heart for some children, and they carry this loss the whole of their lives.


Part of the State
 In all adoptions, you move from being an autonomous individual, into a member of the state, where you are not responsible for decisions that are made about you.  This is not a very comfortable feeling for some, and for me personally, it was very uncomfortable feeling.  I did not like the fact that my life was open for anyone to come into when ever they saw fit, and for someone whom I had no respect, to hold power over me. For me, it was a great relief when myself, and of course my son, once again became autonomous individuals.  Thus, with international adoption, for a period of time, you are instruments of the state, then you move back out of it, and your child then has the opportunity to be free of the shackles of state care, and can experience the freedom that our society offers.

This is not necessarily the case with domestic adoption, where the child is always an adopted child and the state is the lynch pin between the birth and adoptive families. This is not a problem if you have faith in the system, and it has worked for you, and in your child's favour.  I know of people who have adopted domestically and find it very reassuring that the social worker is on hand to provide support and that they have the backing of the state.  I suppose it depends on your relationship with the state and where you like to stand in regard to it.


 The average international adoption takes roughly 3 years .  This is from the moment you pick up the phone to say that you would like to begin an international adoption to the time that you are home with your child.  It my be quicker, or it may be slower. The UK side will take approximately 18 months, and same for the in-country side.  However, this is likely to change at a moments notice. The country's adoption programme may be halted, e.g. when the UK government stopped adoptions from Guatemala, or it may have severe hold ups, for unknown reasons, which is presently the case with China where the wait is now approximately 4 years once the papers are in country. Many counties have stipulations as to the timings of the applications.  In Russia, they have to refer a child to you within one year of them accepting your application. 

The point though, with inter-county adoptions, is that there is a child at the end of the process not matter how long. If you are persistent and do not give up then you will become a parent.


One of the main complaints about domestic adoption is the length of time the process takes.  Not so much the Home Study, but the wait for a referral.  I have known of people who have waited for years and years.  Part of the problem is that domestic adoption depends very largely on geographical locations. If you live in the Shetland Isles, then you have to wait for a child to become available in the Shetland Isle, before you could be matched with them.  In 2004 they bought out the National Adoption Register which meant that a child from Croydon could find their permanent home in Scotland, but since its inception 6 years ago, only 1292 children have been matched. So, basically you are left to wait for a child to come available in your local borough. With the new lifting of the ethnic guidelines, hopefully the wait will be shorter.


Smoothness of process


International adoptions are complex and complicated - there are at least 150 people involved in the process.  You need to be patient, flexible and robust. Anything and everything can go wrong. You are dealing with another country and its rules, regulations and laws. But once you have been matched with a child, it is rare for you to lose that referral. Often, you will meet you child and go through the adoption process in the same trip. It is emotionally draining, but when you begin to invest emotionally in the child, there is every possibiltiy that this child will become yours.

It has been reported that domestic adoption is notorious for the emotional roller coaster. I have heard so many stories of couples being told that they found a match, sometimes meeting that little child, and then being told,  "Oh sorry , we have found another family that would be a better match for this child".  This does not just happen, the once, but can happen a couple of times. A very stressful practice.

I recently spoke to one woman, who was on the foster-adopt programme and had a lovely little boy with them for 3 years. They started the adoption process, but was then told  "Oh, we don't think that you are the best family for this child", and took him away. Three years later, the child has still not been adopted, and has been housed in 3 different foster homes.


Success rates


Domestically most  adoptions, between 80 - 90% are successful.  When things go horribly wrong, and an adoption breaks down, it is called a disruption if it occurs before adoption order in place, or dissolution, if a judge has to reverse a court order . Disruption increases with the age of the children.  Newborn adoptions are rarely disrupted, the rate increases with the age of the children and the time that the children are in the adoptive family. BAAF estimates that 1 in 5 adoptions break down, and a major study by the Maudsley Hospital found a disruption rate of 8 per cent after one year and 29 per cent six years later. Non full disclosure is cited as the main reason for things not working out, i.e. expectations vs reality, as well as lack of support and advice for prospective parents. 60% of children adopted in the UK are between 1 and 4 and 29% are between 5 and 9 years old.   


As far as I am aware there are no statistics for inter-country disruptions. Research shows no evidence that international adoptions are any more likely to break down than domestic placements. One study of 165 children adopted from Romania found only two breakdowns and other research shows that most children adopted from overseas do well in terms of developmental outcomes. I know with the Russian adoptions in the past 6 years there have been no breakdowns and that is over 70 adoptions.




One of the major differences between domestic and international adoption are the costs involved.


A domestic adoption is paid for by the local authorities and very few costs are passed onto the adopters.  In some cases they will even provide financial support for the adoption and its auxiliary services.


In an inter-country adoption, all expenses are passed onto the adopters, and it begins to add up and become very expensive.  There are 150 people involved in an international adoption and each of them is rewarded for their services. Despite Article 21 of UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which states: State Parties shall...(c) Ensure that the child concerned by inter-country adoption enjoys safeguards and standards equivalent to those existing in the case of national adoption (where there is no charge), the Home Study will set you back up to £6500.  The Department for Education has just imposed a fee of £1775 for their services, and other major UK costs are notarization and legalisation of documents.

The services of a foreign adoption agency,  (if you are needing one, which you do not for all countries), will be additional. These costs vary.  On top of this is your travel and accommodation. It is though, important to bear in mind that usually it does not cost anything to actually adopt a child in most countries - it is all the professional services that you are paying for. 



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