Becoming a parent, no matter how it happens, is never easy. But for those just looking into the possibility of adoption it can seem positively overwhelming. It is our hope to change all that. This 8-post series will go step-by-step through the process to adopt through the special needs program for those of you who are just starting out on the adventure of a lifetime. Join us.
Here are the topics that will be covered:
1. Why China?
2. Special Needs and the Medical Conditions Checklist
3. LID vs. Special Focus
4. Picking an Agency – Part 1
5. Picking an Agency – Part 2
6. The Steps of the China Adoption Process (Acronyms Decoded)
7. Beginning the Paper Chase and Homestudy
8. Things to Read, Do and Study While You Wait
Choosing your agency may be one of the most daunting tasks of the adoption process. If you feel that you don’t know enough to make such a huge decision at the very beginning of your adoption journey, you are absolutely not alone! The 10-part NHBO series Choosing a China Adoption Agency is great place to read about this subject in much more detail. For our purposes in this series, we’ll cover this subject in one two-part post, with part one being posted here.
Okay, we covered different policies regarding child placement and files in the last post, now let’s talk about some of the procedural differences between agencies, and potential questions for you to ask when narrowing down your top choices.
1. Dossier preparation.
The dossier is your life in a stack of papers—everything about your family, finances, employment, history, and health, along with your home study. Each of these papers are notarized and then sealed by your state and federal governments and the Chinese consulate before they are sent off to Beijing. Some agencies will insist that you prepare your own dossier. Some agencies prepare your dossier, at an added cost to you. Several of the agencies that prepare dossiers will, however, allow you to do it yourself. They may not advertise this, so it’s a good idea to ask.
On one hand, completing the dossier yourself may save you some money (another good question to ask is how much money it will save). But if you are not a super organized person, or if paperwork is not your thing, the added expense and peace of mind of having your agency complete the dossier might be something for you to consider. If the agency requires you to complete the dossier yourself, ask what kind of support they offer to help you. Do they have staff available to help answer questions? Will they double-check your paperwork for you before you send it off? Do they have a dossier prep guidebook?
Some agencies have travel groups. Their families travel to China with a group of adoptive families, and all adopt their children at the same time. Ask questions about what these groups look like — how many families travel at a time? Do they tour together? Eat meals together? This is your chance to find out what your trip would be like. You’ll want to know whether they ever allow families to travel separately from the groups, particularly in cases with extenuating circumstances. (For instance, if you end up needing a medical expedite for your child, you would want to know whether the agency will allow you to travel without waiting for a group.) You should also ask how often travel is scheduled, and how long you might have to wait following your travel approval to leave for China.
Other agencies do not have travel groups. While you might meet up with other adoptive families on your journey, you will generally travel on your own (albeit with a guide for your official appointments and some sightseeing). If the agency does not have travel groups, ask questions about scheduling your travel. Does the agency make you wait for any period of time after travel approval, and if so, how much time? Ask if they use a travel company in China, and/or if you will be able to schedule your travel and sightseeing on your own. Whether they use a travel company or not, are you required to stay at certain hotels or go on certain tours? Will you be able to book your own flights and hotel rooms? And do they have China staff that will help you book in-country travel? If they do, will they let you book those things if you are able to find better deals? If the agency uses a travel company, ask them to detail the costs associated with using that travel company. You will want to make sure that there aren’t a ton of hidden fees that you’ll learn about only at the end of your adoption process. (This is a problem for some agencies — make sure to ask about hidden fees that are not included on the fee outline. You can read more about this on the Rate Your Agency page on Facebook.)
Keep in mind that the cost of your trip will vary greatly depending on the time of year that you travel, and that the cost of airline tickets alone can make a huge difference in the total cost of your adoption.
Finally, you will want to think about whether you will be at your best with just your family, or with the support of a bigger group. Consider that, for many families, this trip is extremely stressful. For some, the freedom of being able to do the China trip on your own terms is key. For others, the support of a group experiencing the same journey is invaluable.
3. In-country staff.
Does the agency have staff in China that will help to facilitate your adoption process? Some agencies have this and some don’t. China staff can help with things such as expediting (if necessary), communications with the CCCWA if there are issues with your paperwork, communication with the orphanage for updates, planning your trip, and helping to coordinate your travel in country.
I will speak from my own experience on this issue. Our agency had China staff, and one staff member was invaluable to us. Our son’s adoption was expedited, and she was able to communicate directly with the CCCWA throughout our adoption process in order to check on our paperwork, and move things along. She helped us to get our consulate appointment expedited in Guangzhou. She contacted the province and had them prepare our son’s passport before we traveled to China, in order to shorten the total length of our trip so that we could get him home to the doctor. She booked all of our travel in country. She helped us to book hotels, and when she found that we could book things on our own for less money, she would have us do that. Once we got to Guangzhou, she helped us with little things like finding medicine, and sending our laundry out to be washed. She talked to the Chinese doctor about why he should allow our son to get on the plane to come home once it became apparent that due to his medical history, the doctor was hesitant.
Our experience with her was top notch, and I can’t imagine what our trip would have been like without her. The China trip can absolutely be completed with an agency that doesn’t have staff in China, but if they don’t, ask questions about how they handle issues that might arise when you’re in China, and whether they have a 24 hour on-call person that will be able to assist you if you have any problems while you are there.
So many factors play into the cost of an adoption that it’s hard to compare the differences in fees between agencies. However, there are some things that you should look at as you are considering agencies. Do they have a cost sheet available on their website? The cost sheet should clearly break down their fee schedule. You should be able to determine how much of your money will be going to the agency and at what points throughout the process. You should also have a clear overview of the total costs by looking at the fee sheet. If the fee sheet isn’t available on the website, you should be able to easily obtain one by calling the agency. Make sure to notice whether travel fees are included.
When comparing costs, sit down with each agency’s cost sheet, and tally up the various fees. Although a few are generally known to be more expensive than the rest, you will find that the majority fall within a similar range. Know that the time of year that you travel can greatly affect the total cost of your adoption.
A few other cost questions: does the agency offer grants for waiting children? If they have grants, are they available to everyone regardless of income, or restricted to families who make less than a certain amount of money per year? What is the agency’s cost reduction if you come back to them within a year to reuse your dossier? Does the agency accept payment by credit card? If they do take credit card payments, do they charge an additional fee?
How big is the agency? How many families do they serve? How much staff do they have? Are they very hands on with their families? Hands off? Ask yourself whether you are the kind of person who needs hand holding through this journey. (No shame in this—many of us do, especially when we have a child living on the other side of the world.)
The size of an agency does not necessarily correlate with its customer service. You might get a warm and fuzzy feeling from a very big agency, and a sense that they know and care about their families despite the fact that there are a lot of them. Alternatively, just because an agency is small does not mean that they are hands on with their families. For me, a more important question is whether the agency has a policy about communicating with its clients, and what that policy is. Do they require an email response within 24 hours? Will you know who your contact person is at every stage of the process? Do they have enough staff to ensure that your questions are answered in a timely manner? (This can become vitally important if a child goes up on the website that you are very interested in—you will want to know that you can count on a quick response from your agency and that your requests to see that child’s file won’t just be lost in the shuffle.) Also, again, look at the Rate Your Agency page on this—you will find a lot of honest info about how agencies communicate with their clients. An agency that does not communicate well can make for an extremely frustrating adoption experience.
In the same vein, other questions to ask about customer service include the following:
How long has the China program been in existence at this agency?
How long has the China staff been with the program? (You want to get a feel for whether the people that you are going to be in constant contact with know what they are doing.)
Have they ever completed expedited adoptions?
What would they do if there was a problem with your paperwork — will they go to bat with USCIS for you? The CCCWA?
How often will they check on your paperwork once you are DTC (dossier to China)?
Will they let you know when your dossier is logged into the China system?
Do they let you know at each step prior to LOA (as your dossier is being translated and going through the process on the China side)?
Do they have China staff that can check on this for you if there are issues with your paperwork at any point during the process?
Does the agency offer any training for its families? What sort of training? (And by this, I mean training that is separate and apart from any requirements to complete your home study.) How do they ensure that their families are prepared for the difficulties of parenting a child that has been institutionalized?
Finally, don’t discount your gut feeling about an agency. No agency is perfect, and I think you’ll find that if you get a good feeling about an agency it’s probably for a reason.
I know that I’ve thrown a ton of information at you, but my guess is that I’m leaving a few things out. Feel free to post other considerations that influenced your family when making your agency decision in the comments below.
For those of you that are still wrestling with this decision, I recommend going through this post and making a list of your family’s priorities. In so doing, you should be able to start to whittle down your choices. When you narrow down the agencies to your top few and begin to call them to ask questions, my hope is that you will quickly get a sense for which agency is the best for your family.