Wall Street Journal: How to Start Asking Questions About Adoption

adoptionIF YOU ARE an American who has contemplated adopting, don’t fret just because you’re currently living overseas. For expat Americans interested in starting or adding to a family, adopting—whether from the country you are living in, from the U.S. or from a third country—is definitely still possible.

“We tell people, you do it one step at a time, but then you always have a few more steps being a foreigner living overseas—whether it’s your taxes to going back home to visit family,” says Carol Albers, the founder of Adopt Abroad, a nonprofit agency that helps American expats with adoptions. “It is a little more complicated but obviously in the end it works and is worth doing.”

We spoke with a number of experts on adoption, immigration and law. Some cases aren’t straightforward and can involve intricate areas of immigration law, but here is a general guide, which should help you begin the journey.

Q. Let’s take a fictional American couple: They have been living and working in Madrid for a few years and, through one of the many agencies, they decide they want to adopt a child from Bulgaria. What is the first step in the international adoption process?

A. According to a U.S. Department of State official who works on international adoption issues, potential adopters must establish their “habitual residence,” which has to be done through the central authority of the country they are living in. (N.B., every country has its own way of measuring this status.) In Spain, for example, the government may see our American couple as temporary residents (maybe they are only working in the country for a few years before moving back to the U.S.). If that is the case, the couple can go through the U.S. adoption process. However, if the Spanish government deems that the couple have habitual residence in Spain—even though they are U.S. citizens—the couple will have to follow Spanish procedures for adoption, whether adopting a child from Spain, the U.S. or a third country. In this case, after the adoption is completed, you still have to file all the U.S. paperwork. (This applies to all countries—not just Spain.)

“That is because you are, in a sense, hoping to bring the child to the U.S. at some point,” Ms. Albers says. “You have to look into a lot of specifics in that. It is immigration law.”

Q. What do you do if a country rules that our Spanish couple’s habitual residence is in the U.S.?

A. They can adopt through the U.S. international adoption process. “The family should get a letter from the central adoption authority in Spain saying, ‘Yes we deem you temporarily here, you can do the process through the U.S.,’ ” says Ms. Albers. Then you have to find an agency to help you, preferably one that works with expats and therefore has a track record dealing with the nuances of international adoption and immigration law. You are required by U.S. law to work with a U.S.-based agency that is Hague-accredited. (Information can be found through the Department of State HERE and HERE.)

Q. What happens once you have found an agency?

A. The family must complete a “home study”—an official assessment of suitability to adopt. Randy Barlow, who runs American Adoption Professionals Abroad, an association of adoption social workers who consult for various Hague-accredited adoption agencies, says that the home study is a process, not just one meeting. “We always start out with a Skype call or a phone call to discuss their situation, their adoption goals, what they are trying to do,” he says. “If we feel like we can work with them, we sign a contract and send out a detailed questionnaire.” Mr. Barlow says that when it comes to the actual visit, he usually flies in on a Thursday and meets with the family for a few hours that day. On the Friday, he then has a more extensive meeting, going over everything on the questionnaire and meeting everyone in the family. He says it usually takes at least two months from the time the home study begins to when the report is done. Cost can vary considerably because of the extensive travel, and permutations, but a general guide would be $2,000-$3,000.

Q. What happens once the report is done?

A. After you submit the home study to the U.S. Department of Immigration, you will then, if approved, be given a Letter of Favorable Determination. (If not approved, there is an appeal procedure.) This letter is the official notice stating that you, as an applicant, are approved to adopt a child and bring that child into the U.S. This paper becomes part of your adoption dossier, which will then be sent by the Hague-accredited agency to the appropriate officials in the country you are adopting from. That foreign country—Bulgaria in our fictional case—then has the right to judge whether or not it deems you are living overseas and whether or not they will approve you. “In a sense, you are dealing with three governments,” says Ms. Albers.

Q. Is it all a daunting prospect?

A. Ms. Albers says that though it is complicated, so is all adoption. “We tell people, ‘Don’t freak out, it’s just paperwork,’ ” she says. “You have to look at the whole picture, where you are going, what you want. It sounds daunting but if the right things fall into place, it can be done.”

The Department of State official noted that each adoption is different and the experience will be different for every couple. With three-country adoptions (U.S. citizens living abroad and adopting from a country they aren’t living in), the situation is more complicated. An American couple living in Brussels and adopting a child in China will likely have a completely different experience if that same couple were living in Nairobi and trying to adopt that same Chinese child.

This basic overview, however, should give you some of the questions to start asking, as anything is possible.