Adopting an orphan

Adopting an Orphan

As you begin your research on adopting an orphan, you may find that there is a lot of information available. As the former Executive Director of Joint Council on International Children’s Services, I saw how the process of adopting an orphan changed over the last 15 years. It is important to understand the definition of an orphan and the steps thereafter in the process of adopting an orphan.

The Definition of An Orphan

There is often a misunderstanding of who qualifies as an orphan and also which children who are orphaned are eligible for adoption. UNICEF states the definition of an orphan as a “child who has lost at least one parent to death as a result of disease, war, or poverty.” If prospective adoptive parents are adopting a child from a Hague Convention country, the child will need to be determined to be an orphan under this definition in order to be eligible for adoption. The trouble with these statistics is that orphaned children (according to a traditional definition) are not counted. We have the ability to determine how many children have died of coronavirus, how many children have been vaccinated against various diseases, and how many children are in school; however, we do not have a global measure of how many children are living outside the love and protection of a forever family. 

The more traditional idea of an orphan, that both parents are deceased, means that there are more than 15 million to 18 million orphans in the world. We often think of orphans as children abroad who are living outside of permanent family care. Many people believe there are no orphans in the United States. They wrongfully assume that since we no longer have orphanages in our country, we must not have an orphan issue. However, we do have orphans; they are the 443,000 (and more) children living in the United States foster care system. Although not all of these children are eligible for adoption, approximately 123,000 children are currently waiting for their forever family and are eligible to be adopted in the United States. 

Understanding the definition of an orphan helps you see that this includes children from all over the globe, including the United States. Children who are orphaned may or may not be eligible for adoption per their circumstances and where they live. They are of all ages from infant through adulthood and all races, religions, nationalities, and genders. Understanding which children are orphans is the first step in understanding what goes into the process of adopting an orphan.

The Process of Adopting an Orphan Internationally

There are many different factors when adopting an orphan through international or intercountry adoption. There were only 2,971 adoptions through intercountry adoption to the United States in 2019; this is a massive statistical drop. Especially from where international adoptions were at their peak at 22,986 adoptions per year in 2004 when I first entered the field of adoption. This drop-in intercountry adoption is not due to their being less orphans in the world, quite the contrary. There are various geopolitical forces that have included country closures of intercountry adoption.  

Established in 1993, the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption was ratified by the United States in 2007. The Hague Adoption Convention, as it is most commonly referred to, is an international treaty that protects children in the intercountry adoption process. The Convention provides a framework for countries party to the agreement to protect the best interests of the children and prevent abduction, trafficking, or sale of children. It also ensures that when you are adopting a child as a prospective adoptive parent from a foreign country, you are adopting an orphan. The Hague Adoption Convention works to ensure that children are not exploited through the process of intercountry adoption. Through strict standards, prospective adoptive parents are adopting children who are approved for adoption to the United States. The process of adopting an orphan through the Hague Adoption Convention ensures that adoptions are safe, ethical, and transparent. There are critiques of the treaty and how it has been implemented; however, prior to the Convention coming into force there were very few safeguards in place to ensure adoptive parents were actually adopting an orphan and not a child who was kidnapped, trafficked, or who had living parents able to care for him or her.  

The process of adopting an orphan through intercountry adoption can be a long process, but it can be so worth it if this is the right decision for your family and if you have the resources and are eligible to do so. The eligibility requirements differ per country, so the very first step is to search for and research an international adoption agency or adoption service provided. The adoption agency will take you through the intercountry adoption application process, the home study process, the intercountry adoption paperwork (or “paper chase,” as many call it), and the legal process. 

It is important to choose an adoption service provider who is approved to work in the countries from where you hope to adopt. Only agencies that have been approved to work with Hague Convention countries can finalize adoptions from those countries. This often changes so it is important to ensure the agency is eligible. If you are not adopting from a country party to the Hague Adoption Convention, they do not need to be Hague accredited to finalize your adoption. It is important to understand this at the start of your process, however good, ethical adoption agencies who specialize in intercountry adoptions like The Gladney Center for Adoption will be able to help answer all of your questions.

As mentioned before, an individual prospective adoptive parent or a couple must be eligible to adopt by Hague standards and country standards. After having found an agency or adoption service, the first step to adopting an orphan includes your application for pre-approval by your agency. This will differ from agency to agency. Next, you will need to determine if your family is eligible to adopt from the country you hope to adopt an orphan from. These eligibility requirements differ from country to country. They can include how many children are already in your family, how many divorces you and/or your spouse have had, financial status, medical conditions, criminal background, physical maladies, and mental health history. You may have had your heart set on adopting an orphan from a specific country; however, your agency may find that you are not eligible for that country but could adopt from another. Eligibility requirements continue to change, so inquire with your agency sooner than later about this matter.

Once you are pre-approved to adopt, understand the eligibility requirements, and begin the process of getting your home study completed to be approved to adopt an orphan, you will next need to understand the finances of adopting an orphan through intercountry adoption. Understanding how to finance your adoption can be key. International adoptions can be expensive. Even without a lot of financial means or wealth, you can find ways to afford to adopt an orphan internationally. This can be through adoption loans or grants, employer-funded grants, or fundraising campaigns. 

After understanding how to finance your adoption, you and your agency will work through the paper chase of getting your documents in order to adopt your child or children through intercountry adoption. Oftentimes, you will send over your final dossier to the country from which you are adopting;then you will be matched with a child. If you accept the match and pre-referral, you will then go through the legal paperwork of accepting the final referral and work through the last steps of traveling to the child’s country to adopt them. The process in-country and the amount of time this takes in total differs from country to country. Your adoption agency should be able to help you understand the specifics of adopting an orphan at this stage of the adoption process. The time it takes between the start of the international application process of adopting an orphan to the finalization of the adoption may take years.

The Process of Adopting an Orphan Through Domestic Adoption

The process of adopting an orphan in the United States is different than adopting an orphan through intercountry adoption. As shared before, there are many children who are United States citizens and are in desperate need of a safe and loving forever family. There is a big misconception that there are no orphans in the United States. There are differences from the United States and other countries in terms of costs, eligibility, and the process of adopting an orphan. While the costs to adopting an orphan domestically are slightly less than abroad, the process is still expensive. Although there are no longer orphanages in the United States of America and many children who lose one or both parents to death live with other family members, there are children who do not get adopted through kinship care and children who are placed for adoption as an infant.

Similar to intercountry adoption, the first step in the process of adopting an orphan domestically would be to find an adoption agency that specializes in private domestic adoption. Many agencies who work in intercountry adoption also do domestic adoption, but it differs. It is important that the adoption agency you choose is licensed to work in the state you live. You may be able to adopt from any state in the United States, but your agency will need to be licensed in your state. Your home study agency will need to be licensed as well, as you will still need to complete a home study for domestic adoption. 

The process of adopting an orphan varies from state to state, but it usually includes parent education and adoption training, criminal background checks (which are a part of the home study process), home inspection (also a part of the home study process), medical reports, personal and employer-based references, and interviews with you and the adoption agency social worker. The time frame is often much quicker than intercountry adoption.

The matching process for adopting an orphan is also different domestically. The adoption agency with whom you work may also work with birth mothers who are looking for parents for their child. If so, then both the agency and the birth mother will look at profiles of families, including yours, and choose a parent for their baby. Occasionally, before this process happens, many prospective adoptive parents find a match online from adoption photolistings where the birth mother finds a prospective adoptive family for her child. 

The Process of Adopting an Orphan Through Relative or Kinship Adoption

Kinship adoption is the process of a family member adopting an orphan who is related to them. In most states in the United States, next of kin, or relatives, are asked to adopt or be the legal guardians of a child if the child’s parents or the parent with sole custody dies. Kinship adoption can happen between grandparents, cousins, siblings of a certain age (the age dependent on the state) or an aunt or uncle. Adopting an orphan who is your blood-relative takes a certain process which is different per the state in which the child resides. This process is at no cost to the relatives and often it will consist of simple background checks and other safety requirements listed above in domestic adoption, but most of the time the process is handled by state agencies at no cost to the adopting family member. Some states may require parenting education classes and background checks. Other states will require criminal background checks. Your child’s social worker or court legal representative will help in the process. 

The process of adopting an orphan may be different for each situation and family, but you are building your family through adoption and can provide a child with a safe and loving forever home. The journey of adopting an orphan is lifelong and you are taking the first step by researching the process.

Jennifer Mellon

Jennifer Mellon has worked in the child welfare field for more than a decade, serving in varying capacities as the Executive Director and Chief Development Officer of Joint Council on International Children's Services (JCICS) and the Corporate Communications Program Manager for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI). Jennifer has served on the Board of the Campagna Center, which provides critical educational services to children and families in the DC Metro Area and on the Development Committee for the National Council for Adoption. She is the mom of three children and resides in Alexandria, Virginia.