Nine years ago, Karen Stoner of Columbia got a text from her husband, Mark: “It’s a boy.”
After more than seven months of waiting, they had been matched with a baby at a foster home in South Korea. Three months later, they flew to Seoul to meet their son, 7-month-old Max.
At first, he cried a lot in the hotel, a sign that he missed his foster mom. But it didn’t take long for him to become attached to his adoptive parents after they found some foods that he was used to eating.
“He bonded super-quick to me,” Karen Stoner recalled. “It was definitely meant to be.”
She found out shortly after adopting Max, now 9, that her family would grow more: She was pregnant with their daughter, Aly, now 7.
The Stoners — and my family — are part of the changing face of adoption in Howard County and the United States. International adoptions like theirs have declined, with more local families considering U.S. adoptions through foster care, according to Janice Goldwater, executive director of Adoptions Together, an adoption agency that serves families in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. And adoptions of all kinds are becoming more common, more accepted and less secretive than in the past.
Though it has a reputation for seeming too costly or too burdensome, adoption today can be accessible and doable.
My husband, Scott, and I adopted our two sons at birth; they are 7 and 9 now. We chose domestic infant adoption, one of three options for adoptive parents.
Adoption agencies explain the pros and cons of each option and help families identify their individual needs and preferences. Applicants state whether or not they will accept specific circumstances, such as a child of a different race, a prematurely born infant, a child with a particular health problem, a child born in a different state, or a set of twins.
In domestic infant adoption, birth parents choose the adoptive family and voluntarily give up their parental rights. In Maryland, birth parents have 30 days to change their mind. However, the rules vary widely from state to state. Unlike past practice, adoptions now are usually open, which means the birth family and the adoptive family may stay in touch through letters, emails or phone calls.
As newbie parents who had a lot to learn, we wanted to start out with a newborn.
Both adoptions took about nine months, the same duration as a pregnancy. The first time, the home study, which involves paperwork and home visits from the adoption agency, took three months, and we were in the waiting pool for six months.
But the hardest part was not the waiting. It was the uncertainty — not knowing how long the wait would be, not knowing if a placement might fall through, not knowing anything about the baby or the birth parents until we got a call from our agency. The situation felt unsure and unpredictable until we got to see and hold our sons.
We told our agency, Adoptions Together, that we were willing to do an in-state or out-of-state adoption. An out-of-state adoption can be more complex (because state laws vary widely) and slightly more expensive (because of the travel).
It was a surprise when our agency called to tell us we were matched with our son, Grant, the day he was born in Tampa, Fla. Immediately, we were swept up in an overwhelming whirlwind of activity and emotion, including a lot of excitement and joy and a little trepidation. Would we be good parents? Would we do the right things for him?
The next day, we flew to Tampa and spent time with his birth mom in the hospital. We’re glad that we could bring home photos of her. We send letters and photos to her twice a year.
Our younger son, Ben, was born in Miami. We were matched with him six weeks before he was born, so we knew the expected due date. We felt more prepared and knew what to bring with us.
We arrived at the hospital a few hours after he was born, but the social worker at the hospital would not let us see him for two more days. It’s unclear why, but, regardless, that was very hard. Imagine how happy we were to finally hug him, feed him a bottle, and stare into his sweet face.
Both times we adopted, we had to stay in Florida until Maryland and Florida officials approved the legal paperwork. The two states shared and reviewed information to ensure the placement was safe and legal. It took 10 days the first time and three days the second.
A judge in Florida finalized the adoptions several months later, after our agency did more home visits. We celebrated with burgers and fries.
The hurdles we faced are not unique; the other routes to adoption — international adoption and domestic adoption through foster care — involve sometimes-complex processes, too.
In international adoptions, each country has different rules about who can adopt. Some require adopting parents to meet a certain age range, marital status, health status or other criteria. The countries with the highest number of adoptions by Americans last year were China, Ethiopia, Ukraine, South Korea, India, and Haiti, according to the U.S. State Department. Most of the children adopted internationally are 1 or 2 years old at the time of placement and have been orphaned or abandoned.
Originally, the Stoners applied to adopt a child from Vietnam. Shortly after the Stoners submitted their paperwork and money, the United States and Vietnam ended their agreement to permit adoptions due to concerns about corruption. (Six years later, U.S. adoptions from Vietnam commenced again.) After the adoptions from Vietnam stopped, Karen Stoner said they took a break for about three months without going further. Then they learned more about adopting from Korea and started to purse that avenue.
"We knew it would come, and it would happen," she said.
In domestic adoptions through foster care, state laws vary, but parents in Maryland can be single, married or part of a same-sex couple. The children can be any age, but usually are not infants — they’ve been placed with a foster family due to abuse or neglect.
Adopting through foster care is free. In contrast, you pay fees for legal and social services when you work through an agency in a domestic infant adoption or international adoption.
“Adoption can be expensive, and it can be onerous, but it doesn’t have to be,” Goldwater said. “It has a spectrum of costs. It’s important for people to do their homework and learn about the spectrum of possibility in adoption and find what works for them.”
Agencies often offer a sliding scale of fees, based on income. After an adoption is finalized, the family can receive a one-time tax credit of $13,570. Some employers offer an adoption benefit (a one-time payment to subsidize adoption costs).
Our savings over the years, combined with the tax credit and an adoption benefit from my employer at the time, helped us complete our family.
Most adoption agencies offer counseling and support groups for families dealing with questions and concerns as the adopted child grows up. The Center for Adoption Support, with headquarters in Burtonsville, also offers adoption counseling education.
For my family, the emotional adoption journey was remarkably similar to what many moms and dads experience with a typical labor and delivery: so much joy, along with a bit of worry and the awesome responsibility of caring for a tiny child. Everything was new and a bit chaotic, but still wonderful to be growing our family.