Monthly Archives: September 2014

All About The Money

Which agency is the Cheapest?

By now your eyes are glazing over and somewhere out there someone is thinking “Look, I don’t care about all of that–how do I find out which agency is the cheapest?!”  That is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.  I reviewed cost sheets for several popular agencies to try and answer that question.  You start with the application fee which can range from $200 to $700.  All agencies will have the same fixed costs for the adoption such as the fees you pay to immigration and to China.  But then there is an “agency fee” which should cover all of what you pay to the agency that isn’t a fixed cost from somewhere else.  However, the agencies all calculate these fees differently on their cost sheet.  Some favor one large “inclusive” agency fee while others have an agency fee which seems low but they nickel and dime you with various other fees.  And an itemized cost sheet may or may not be available on the website, just to make it a little bit more difficult to compare costs.

Let’s look at two different agency fees using information I pulled from two actual agency sites:

Agency A has an agency fee of $15,000.  Agency B has an agency fee of $5500.  Sounds like an easy choice, right?  But Agency B has the following additional fees:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  • Translation and document fee $600
  • Dossier registration fee $800
  • Dossier translation fee $350
  • Professional service fee $1500
  • Orphanage donation $5300
  • Fees to US Consulate for services $1000
  • —————-Total extra fees = $9550

All of those extra fees for Agency B are included in the agency fee of Agency A.  So if you subtract those out, then you are actually comparing an agency fee of $5450 for Agency A to the agency fee of $5500 for Agency B making them essentially the same cost.  This is why it is so difficult to compare agency costs!

Let me give you another example: orphanage partnerships.  I discussed orphanage partnerships previously, and because they involve an agency supporting an orphanage financially, partnerships raise an agency’s operating costs.  Agencies can spread this cost around in different ways.  Let me use the same two actual agencies above, and add Agency C.

  • Agency A has 10 partnerships and includes any partnership costs in their comprehensive “agency fee.”
  • Agency B has 12 partnerships and has a “charitable aid and development fee” of $500 which is probably used, in part, to support their partnerships.
  • Agency C has 12 partnerships and charges a $600 fee specifically to people who adopt from a partnership orphanage, but also an additional $250 fee for everyone which goes to support their charitable development work.

An important aspect that few people consider when comparing fees between agencies are the homestudy and post-placement costs.

Sometimes your placing agency will also be your homestudy agency and in that case, you can’t do much about the cost of the homestudy.  If you are in that situation be sure you ask if you would be able to keep your homestudy if you transfer to another agency later in the process. Most people will use a local homestudy agency and that agency will send the homestudy to the placing agency for approval.  The placing agency might tell you that you need to use a particular homestudy agency that they are affiliated with or you might be able to choose any Hague accredited agency.  My placing agency estimated the homestudy cost at between $2500 and $3500 but my local homestudy agency only charged $1500, so it pays to shop around if you have that option.

China currently requires that you submit post-placement reports for five years following an adoption.  Unfortunately, many parents are less motivated to complete this paperwork once their child is home.  When an agency consistently has parents which do not submit post-placement reports, then it reflects poorly on that agency and can affect their working relationship with China.  For this reason, many placing agencies are now requiring a security deposit from parents at some point before the adoption is finalized.  Many homestudy agencies are also either requiring a deposit or that all the post-placement costs be paid upfront rather than the old way of paying per visit as you go.  I spoke with one parent who paid $6000 in post-placement visits before they were allowed to travel.  If you are comparing two agencies and they are $2000-$3000 apart in costs, be sure to ask about their post-placement polices because this can make a difference.

  • Does the agency require a deposit or that all the costs be paid upfront?
  • If it is a deposit, what will happen to the money if you move or the agency closes? I can’t stress this point enough because many parents have lost their deposit money for these two reasons.
  • Does the placing agency charge one post-placement fee or a fee per visit for translation and submission of the reports?
  • How much does the homestudy agency charge per post-placement visit?

Travel costs are also an area where agencies can make up additional funds to offset an attractively low agency fee.  I discuss this a bit more at the end of this post, and you can use the questions from the travel section in the previous post to help you in this area.

 

I think the conclusion I have drawn from my research on this topic is that it is almost impossible to determine which agency is The Cheapest.  There are too many variables to IMG_0549compare.  Most agency fees will vary within a range of about $5000.  If you narrow it down to two agencies and their costs are within $2000-$3000 then I would consider the factors in the last post carefully as you make your decision. Everyone needs to think about what they would pay more for, because as I pointed out last time, there is no perfect agency.

Let me give you some examples of how this works out in practice.  Unlike the agencies I listed above these are not actual agencies, just composites of typical experiences.

Big Agency is big but you didn’t realize how big until you waited three weeks for your dossier to be reviewed so it could be mailed to China.  Then you waited 9 months longer to get a referral than all of you friends on your DTC group who sent their dossiers at the same time.  But since you had been logged in so long you got your LOA in a week so you made up all kinds of time there!  Also, you split the difference on the travel group issue because your agency is so big that they send groups weekly so you got to travel 2 weeks after your travel approval arrived.  Your agency is one of the cheapest options even though they don’t offer grants, and you feel like you got great service, but part of you wonders if next time you shouldn’t pay a little more to go with an agency that will get you a referral sooner.

Small Agency is pretty small and you loved chatting on the phone with your agency rep.  It felt like you were part of a family and you still have the agency rep’s number on your cell phone.  Their fees were a little higher but they offered a lot of grants to their kids so that made it basically the same price as some of the cheaper ones.  You had to do most of the paperwork yourself, but the ladies from your DTC group were a huge help with that.  It was so exciting that your agency mailed your dossier to China the day after it arrived!  It was awesome to get a fast referral even if it seemed like that LOA would never arrive.  The only thing you didn’t like was that they require you to use a particular travel agency to handle all of the travel arrangements.  Yes, you got to leave five days after your TA arrived, but you feel that they really jacked up the price and you could have saved money by booking your own hotels and flights.  You also got really mad that they charged you a daily guide fee even on days when you didn’t use the guide!  And frankly, the guide wasn’t that great.  You were a little jealous of the great day trips and guide service that your friends with Big Agency had.  You hate to leave the agency family but you’re thinking that next time you might find an agency that won’t charge so much for travel.

Middle Agency is a mid-sized agency.  Their fees are a little higher but you felt you got a lot of perks for the money such as a dossier preparation service and they included a lot of those little fees in their price so you weren’t always being asked for money.  You were disappointed that they only send dossiers to China on a Friday but at least they reviewed it in 2 days so it went out the same week they received it!  You had to wait 3 or 4 months for a referral but it was so worth it once you saw her picture, and besides, you know lots of people on your DTC group with Big Agency that waited much longer.  You didn’t even mind the travel groups because your agency got great group rates on the hotel and guide service so it sounds like you paid less than the people who booked their own travel.  Unfortunately, your agency only sends a travel group to your child’s province once a month so you had to wait over a month after your TA to travel!!  Yes, you saved over $2000 on your airfare by waiting so long, but it seemed like everyone else left within a week of getting their TA.  You loved your agency, but you think that next time you might shop around a little to see if you can find one that is not quite so pricey and will let you travel sooner.

All three of these people had good experiences with their agency, would recommend them wholeheartedly to friends, yet had a major issue that they weren’t quite happy with.  Would you pay more to shave 6 months off your referral time?  To leave right away after TA?  That’s what you need to decide when choosing an agency.

Raising Funds For Adoption

IMG_1372It has become quite common for families to use fundraising to help with the high costs of adoption.  There are a few factors involved on this that I wanted to touch on in this post.  First, if you do not have all of the funds starting off, be sure to ask potential agencies for a payment schedule.  Some agencies require that you have at least half of the funds upfront.  Most agencies will have points where you cannot progress further if you are not paid up, often at either dossier submission (DTC) or travel.  Be sure to budget carefully knowing what you need to pay when.  My agency had us pay the orphanage donation at LOA, although you could make payments on it until travel.  Most other agencies don’t have you pay that until you travel, but many people were scrambling to come up with the orphanage donation funds plus travel costs all at the same time.  If you add in an agency that requires you to pay several thousand for post placement visits at the same time, that is a big chunk of money to come up with at one time and most of us don’t have a money ram to slaughter to pay for it.

Moving on to a sensitive topic, many families feel that they are called to adopt and an aspect of this for them is “stepping out in faith” even though they do not have all, or sometimes any, of the funds required.  In online adoption communities, faithful families will encourage each other with testimonies of how God provided all the funds necessary for their adoption even though it seemed impossible when they began.  I do not discount those stories, but I want people who are considering this route to know that not all families are able to come up with the funds in time, and these families are less likely to stay in the adoptive community to share their experience.  There is a constant flow of children on advocacy sites who were locked for a time and then return, weeks or months later, because the potential family could not find the funds to complete the adoption.  This hurts both the children, who will now be that much older and therefore more difficult to place, as well as the families who feel the heartache of the child they lost and probably a struggle with their faith since they felt they had a call but it didn’t work out the way they had expected.

If you are beginning an adoption without the full amount of funds available you should give serious consideration to how you expect to make up those funds.  Ideally you would have a large portion of it when you start and a plan for how you are going to bring in the rest.  Tax refund, selling stocks, home equity loan, fundraisers, whatever.  While fundraising for adoptions is still controversial with some adoptive families and can have some unforeseen consequences, it has become a common practice.  People who are well-connected in the community, have churches with active adoption ministries, or even with popular blogs have highly successful fundraisers.  But what if no one wants to buy your T-shirts and your yard sale is rained out?  Make sure you consider carefully how and when you think the money will be coming in, and remember that you can choose to delay several months or a year before starting the process if you need to be more financially secure.

I will write more about adopting two children at the same time in the next post, but be aware that if you adopt two at the same time there is not a substantial savings.  Most of the fees will be doubled because all of the paperwork, visas, and donations still need to be paid for each child.  Your chief savings will be in not having to make a second trip.  Some agencies will offer a discount on their fee if you are adopting two at the same time, but not all.

Some links with resources on finding funds for adoption:

Other related questions to ask potential agencies:

  • Do you offer grants for waiting children?
  • Do you offer a returning client discount?  Military discount?
  • Are the grants automatic or is there an application process?
  • Do you partner with any organizations such as Brittany’s Hope?
  • If I have funds available through an organization such as Reece’s Rainbow or Adopt Together, will you count those towards our bill?  Do you charge a processing fee for the transfer of these funds?
  • Do you have a way for people to contribute directly toward our adoption costs?  Is there a fee associated with this?
  • If people contribute funds that are more than the amount owed to you, will you keep the extra funds or are those returned to us?
  • If I receive notice of a grant after my child is home which is paid directly to the agency, will that amount be refunded to us (since you’re already paid off the bill) or does the agency keep the grant money?

The Business Side of Large and Small Agencies

IMG_0641While people sometimes assume that “bad” agencies charge high fees and “good” agencies charge low fees because they only care about finding children homes, this view is missing the basics of how businesses are run.  Larger agencies often have higher fees because they have higher operating costs.  Supporting a dozen orphanages in China rather than only one is just one of many differences that can add to an agency’s operating cost.  A larger agency will often spend more than a smaller agency’s entire operating cost on humanitarian aid programs alone!

A larger agency will:

  • Have multiple offices in the United States (multiple buildings, staff, etc.)
  • Operate programs in five or more countries (adds travel to multiple countries)
  • Have in country offices in multiple countries (buildings, staff, taxes to multiple countries)
  • Operate aid programs in the countries where they have adoption programs (again requires more staff and travel)
  • Sometimes will continue to operate aid programs in countries where international adoptions have closed such as Guatemala or Cambodia.

Now maybe you’re thinking “That’s all well and good, but I can’t really afford to pay more in agency fees because they have to pay a lot of staff.  I’m all for donating to charity but I can donate money to my own charities after I have this adoption paid off!” That brings us back to deciding what is most important to you and choosing an agency based on that.  While humanitarian aid programs are an important factor to some people, it is by no means the highest priority for most families when choosing an agency.  

While you might think that smaller agencies would be less costly although a smaller agency might have lower fees, they end up with more profit per adoption than a larger agency with higher fees because of the higher operating costs for larger agencies.  One large agency told me that they actually lose money per adoption, but they are able to make up the difference because they have other sources of income such as investments, heritage camps, and major fundraiser activities.  These are all things which smaller agencies who operate on a much smaller profit margin don’t have the ability to use to offset their costs.  

Smaller agencies have their own problems when it comes to pricing.  Smaller agencies seem more likely to use the travel costs as a way to generate more income.  Since most people focus on whatever is labeled “agency fee” on the cost sheet, and because travel costs vary by time of year so much, it is easier hide some extra fees in that column.   As I wrote in the last post, larger agencies can use their travel groups to obtain group rates at hotels or with guide services.  Smaller agencies aren’t able to do this.  This is is a generalization that doesn’t hold true for all agencies however, so use the questions in the travel section to try and figure out if you will be facing unexpectedly high travel costs with an agency that seems to have lower fees overall.  One good question to ask to try and determine if the agency is padding the travel portion is “Will I be able to receive an itemized receipt for the travel costs?”

Why am I giving you this general information about operating costs?  Because there is a lot of money involved in international adoption.  When you’re running low on funds and feeling stressed it is very easy to feel that the agencies are all about the money.  Someone out there probably is getting rich off of adoption.  But for most agencies, big or small, the decrease in international adoptions paired with rising overseas costs means that they are doing all they can to stay in business.  Agencies can and do close and the reality is that they need to bring in some money in order to stay in the black.  You need to use your financial resources the best you can so that you can bring home your child, and similarly your agency needs to use their financial resources the best that they can so that they can continue to help children find families.

Other posts in this series:

Which comes first, the agency or the child?

Comparing Agencies

Special Adoption Situations

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Comparing Agencies

When most people get started with an adoption from China they might choose Local Small Agency that is nearby or #1 China Agency that a friend who adopted raved about.  It isn’t until you get online later and maybe join a DTC group on Facebook that you start to realize how many differences there are between the various agencies.  As I’ve already said, there are many great agencies out there but let me tell you upfront that there is no perfect agency! You just have to decide which factors are the most important for you and live with the things you find annoying.

I was preparing to discuss the pros and cons of large versus small agencies but I found that people were telling me that they got personal attention and quick responses from a large agency or that a small agency really went to bat for them with the Chinese officials despite not having the connections or influence of a big agency.  I want to give you the tools you’ll need to find the agency that is the best fit for your family, independent of big versus small or name recognition.

I’m going to give you an almost overwhelming amount of information.  I suggest you:

  • Read through this massive series and decide which factors are most important to your family.
  • Then narrow down the agencies to three or four which are the best match for those important factors.
  • Contact the agencies and ask them questions.  I’ll give you plenty to ask so contact them a couple of times–both call and e-mail.  How quickly did they respond?  Did they give you vague answers or specific ones?  Did they ever act annoyed in any way with your questions?
  • Cross any agency off the list who didn’t return calls, acted insulted that you asked about finances, or wouldn’t give you a straight answer to any question.  Because an agency that doesn’t make a potential client a top priority is going to make even less effort when you’ve already given them money.
  • Choose the agency that you felt a connection to, or was the best match on your important factors.

 

Being Matched With Your Child 

IMG_1414Let’s get started with what is most important to everyone–getting a match!  Here is what you should consider if you are going the LID only route.  If you are wanting a young child (usually a girl) with minor needs then you will find an agency, complete your homestudy and send your dossier to China to wait for a match.  Your agency will find a match for you based on the date your dossier was submitted, so basically your place in line.  You might think that you’d get matched faster with a big agency because they get more files, or faster with a small agency because they have fewer families waiting in line.  Really, there is no way to know what the shortest wait is without asking some questions.  You don’t want to wait until you’ve already handed over a couple thousand dollars to your agency to realize that you’re looking at a 2 year wait for a referral while if you’d chosen a different agency you’d have been matched in under 6 months!  Most agencies have more young boys with minor needs than they can place so this is less of an issue for those who are open to a boy.

The most important question is–How long is your average wait for a match for a child that matches our profile?  Most agencies will tell you the wait from DTC, or the date your dossier is logged into China’s system.  One major agency will give you the wait based on when you submitted your medical needs checklist to them.  For most first time adopters, this will be when they send in their agency application, so about six months prior to being DTC.  That means that if that particular agency tells you that you should expect to wait 18 months from MCC to be matched, and another agency is telling you that you would wait about 12 months from DTC to be matched, then they would have a similar timeline.

Many agencies will be vague and say “We are able to match most of our couples within a few months of DTC.”  Do not be satisfied with this.  Ask specific questions:

  1. How many families do you currently have waiting to be matched?
  2. How many families do you usually match per month?
  3. What is the current wait time for a child with the profile that we are looking for?
  4. Will we be updated on changes in wait times, or told how many couples are ahead of us in the process?
  5. Do you have any partnerships?  If so, how many?
  6. Do you match from the shared list?

As I said in the previous post, these days it is important to chose an agency that has an agency partnership, and preferably at least two or three.  At the same time, some larger agencies match exclusively from their partnerships and will not check the shared list.  A recent informal poll in a facebook group found that over half of people who were matched within the past year were still matched with a file which came from the shared list.  There are plenty of orphanages without partnerships, so an agency which matches from both the shared list and partnerships will probably be your best bet.

If you are trying to find your child first, then you would want to ask How they match photolisting children with families?  You found a child you are interested in, and you want to view the file.  Maybe you aren’t the only one who are interested in the child.  There are three different methods that agencies use to decide which set of potential parents will end up with a child on a photolisting.

The most common is First Come, First Served.  The first person to ask for the file gets to review it, and other people who want to review the file are added to a list. The first couple has a certain amount of time to review the file and decide–maybe a few days, maybe a week or two.  (While files which are pulled from the shared list are only locked for 72 hours, agencies have a greater latitude in their designated files.)  If they decline the file then it is passed to the next family on the list, and so on until someone is ready to submit a Letter of Intent (LOI).

Pros:  Only one family views a file at a time, which does not put pressure on the family to rush into a decision.  First come, first served is a principle which seems fair to Americans (further on into the process you will realize this is not an Asian view), so it is not as disappointing to not get matched with a child you love.  You know it’s not personal, you just weren’t first in line.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Cons: This can really drag out the process for the other families and the child involved. If there is a child who is seriously cute but with a serious medical condition, the file could be viewed numerous times before someone is ready to write a LOI.  One parent told me their child’s file was turned down 50 times before they accepted it!  For children with time sensitive medical needs or who are close to aging out, this method can waste valuable time.

Let’s call the second method of matching Race To The Finish!  Agencies who use this method will allow all interested families to view the file at the same time.  The first family who is ready to write a LOI gets the child.

Pros: This more efficient methods cuts down on the wasted time of First Come, First Served.

Cons: This method can really pressure families to make a decision before they’re ready.  Maybe they’re still waiting to hear back from a doctor who reviewed the file but they don’t want to chance losing the child.  Unethical agencies can pressure families to act quickly by saying they think another family is really interested when really, they just want to close to deal and get you to sign.

The third method is Committee Decides.  Multiple families are allowed to view a file at the same time and if multiple families are ready to move forward then an agency committee chooses from among the potential families.

Pros: Committee Decides is the least popular method and it is easy to find people who are angry about it online.  From my perspective, I’m not sure how “I saw her first!” is any more fair?  Committee Decides is a child-centered method to find the best family for a child.  While most of the young children with minor needs would thrive in any loving family, there are often instances where some families would be a better fit than others.  If a child has a time-sensitive special need such as Thalassemia, isn’t better that they be matched with a family who is already DTC so that they can come home six months sooner than if the family who saw the child first was only starting on their home study?  Wouldn’t a better family for a child who is deaf be a family who is already fluent in sign language and a part of the deaf community?  How about older children?  Wouldn’t the best family for an older child be a family who is experienced with the challenges of older child adoption and who has parented past the age of the child rather than a family with only younger children and just beginning their first adoption?  So I will take the unpopular stance and say that I think this method is better for the children who are being placed.

Cons:  I will also acknowledge the serious flip side to this method, which is that it is harder on the potential families.  It is very common for people to feel emotionally connected to a child from the first moment they see the picture.  I can understand how devastating it must be to feel deep in your heart that this is your child, and now a committee is telling you that there is another family better for the child than yours.  Not only is it a loss, but it comes as a veiled insult.  If you feel you can’t handle the heartbreak of a committee deciding that you aren’t the best family for a child then it is important to know which agencies use this method and avoid their photolistings.

After you are matched, you are going to want to share the news and keep updated with your child.  These questions aren’t as important, but you still might want to ask an agency:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  1. When can I share my child’s photo on social media?
  2. How often can I get an update?
  3. Is there any cost for an update?
  4. Can I send my child a care package?
  5. Can I use a third party vendor to send my child a cake or gift package?

 

Paperwork

Whether you are matched before you start the process or after you are DTC, there is still a mountain of paperwork that needs to be compiled before you get to bring that lovely child home.  Since international adoption paperwork involves county and state documents as well as documents which meet the standards of two different countries, you want to make sure you feel confident that your agency knows what they are doing.  Don’t be shy about asking how much experience your agency has.  While the China program has been around for over two decades now, other countries such as Guatemala, Russia, and Ethiopia have been the biggest placing countries for most of that time.  With two of those programs closed and Ethiopia slowed almost to a halt, more agencies are adding a China program as a way to keep their agency open.  Don’t assume that just because agency touts 20 years of experience in international adoption that they have been running a China program for all of that time.

People who are starting the process often feel more comfortable with an agency that does a lot of handholding but I think it really depends on how organized the parent is who will end up doing most of the paperwork.  Agencies really vary as to how much support they offer in compiling a dossier and completing other required forms.  Some will do all the paperwork for you and it’s included in the price, some will do the work for an extra fee, and some basically leave it up to you with little direction.  Once you have compiled the dossier your agency will review it and mail it to China, but the turnaround time on this will (everybody say it with me now) vary by agency.

I will discuss older adoption and adopting two unrelated children at once more in the final installment, but I wanted to mention that you should try to think ahead when your social worker is preparing your homestudy.  It is very common for people to have their homestudy written for a girl with minor needs under the age of two.  And then they decide to be open to a boy, or fall in love with a 4 year old girl, or decide to add a second child.  Any changes to your homestudy will involve getting a homestudy update and filing a supplement with USCIS, costing you hundreds of dollars.  You do not want to be out all of this money because you are approved only for “under two” and you accepted a referral who was 2 years and 2 months old.  Have your social worker write your homestudy as open-ended as possible.  Be approved for either gender, two children, and as old as your social worker is comfortable with.  This costs you nothing and makes no commitment on your part.

If you are approved for two and only adopt one, you might choose to reuse your dossier to adopt another child within a year.  In that case you can only do a homestudy update instead of an entire new homestudy which will save you time and money.  For more information on reusing your dossier, you can join this Facebook group.  If this is something you are interested in, ask your agency how quickly you can start the process again.  Some require you wait at least six months or longer before being another adoption.

If you are adopting a child who is in a life or death medical situation, or an aging out child, ask potential agencies how much experience they have with expedited adoptions.  Some are familiar with this and know all of the steps involved while others may not be aware this is an option.  Sometimes you will not be able to choose the agency, but if you join the China WARP speed adoption group then you will get the support you need walk your agency through the process.

The final consideration is how your agency will handle any problems which pop up on the China side of the paperwork.  I’ve talked to more than one person who said that when their LOA was delayed an excessively long time they were told by their agency that it probably indicated China felt there was a problem but the agency had been waiting it out because they really didn’t know what to do!  Some agencies have in country staff who can visit the CCCWA to check in on problems, but other agencies manage to find and fix problems even without in country staff.

Questions to ask about this part of the process:

  1. How long has your China program been running?
  2. About how many adoptions did you finalize last year in the China program?
  3. What support to do you offer in compiling the dossier?
  4. If the agency compiles the dossier is there an extra fee for this service?  Or can you get a discount if you do it yourself?
  5. How long does the the dossier review typically take?
  6. If you have all of the dossier but the I800a sent to the agency, will they review it in advance to save time?
  7. Are dossiers sent immediately or in batches?
  8. How will the agency notify you of your log in date?
  9. Will you be notified of things like “out of translation” or “in review” while you are waiting for your LOA?
  10. If your LOA wait is long, at what point will the agency check on it?
  11. Can they tell you of a time when a client had a problem and how they handled it?
  12. How will you be notified of LOA?
  13. Do you have any in country staff or offices?

 

Travel

The only thing which might possibly stir up stronger feelings than the Committee Decides method of placing a child would be . . . travel groups!  If the mere thought of a travel group is OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcausing your blood pressure to rise then cast your eyes on my soothing Forbidden City garden picture and remember that you do not have to work with an agency that requires travel groups.  But if you are here because you want to choose an agency to start your first adoption then it’s a safe bet that travel arrangements are the last thing you would think to ask about when you are choosing an agency.

So here’s the deal–you compile a dossier, you get matched with a child, after that long wait for the official letter from China saying that you are all set, then you are ready to hop on a plane.  But like anything else, agencies all do things different ways.  Some people can be on a plane two days after their Travel Approval arrives while others are stuck revising their packing list for another three weeks until the next time their agency sends a travel group.  I know it seems odd to be asking about travel when you are nowhere near that part of the process, but let’s look at the pros and cons of travel groups so you can figure out if you want to rule out an agency based on their travel rules.

Bring On The Travel Group!

  • Your agency will handle all or most of the travel arrangements.  You will be met at the airport and someone will help you check into your hotel.  If you haven’t traveled much or are concerned about traveling to China, you will welcome not having to worry about any of this!
  • By sending families in groups, agencies can secure group rates for hotels and guide services, keeping your travel cost lower than if you had booked everything individually.  Some agencies don’t send groups during the two annual trade fairs or the two weeks of Chinese New Year when travel costs double.
  • Similarly, by booking your airfare two or more weeks ahead, you will pay much less than those who buy tickets at the last minute.
  • Many people love the bonding aspect of travel groups.  You can swap Gotcha Day stories, ask advice from seasoned adoptive parents or be the parents who are helping out the overwhelmed new parents.  Some travel groups continue to have reunions years after they traveled.
  • When you realize you forgot to pack something, you can borrow the item from someone in your travel group or from the agency office (if available).
  • Some of the larger agencies have an in country office within the hotel they use in Guangzhou.  It can be very helpful to have them available for late night translations, to arrange a medical visit for a sick child, or to use the stockpile of donated medications and other items (sometimes strollers and inflatable mattresses even!) in their office.
  • Often people need time to schedule work and childcare so delaying travel for a little while due to a travel group schedule isn’t much of a problem and having fixed dates can sometimes help in the planning.

I Would Never Use An Agency That Requires A Travel Group!  Ever!

  • You are an experienced traveller and you like being able to book your own hotels and flights.
  • Agency travel groups will have everyone stay in the same 5 star hotel, and you would rather use a different hotel where you can use some of your travel points on for some free nights.  Or you want the freedom to stay in a 3 or 4 star hotel and save some money because you are a low maintenance traveler who isn’t intimidated by stories of strange smells and hard beds–it’s only two weeks, people!
  • You feel comfortable getting around on your own, and you like the idea of seeing the “real China” rather than spending a lot of time in touristy group activities.
  • While some agencies use travel groups to save money, others use the opportunity to make some money, requiring you to purchase an expensive “travel package” that costs much more than if you had done the booking yourself.
  • The biggest reason to avoid travel groups is that you can leave as soon as possible after you receive your Travel Approval.  This is what you’ve been waiting for and you want that baby in your arms ASAP!!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAProbably you had a gut reaction to one or the other of these while you were reading through, but there are still some questions you can ask to see if you can live with an agency’s travel requirements.  Even if you don’t care one way or the other you might find information on your specific agency’s policies helpful, for example knowing which hotel they use if you want to apply for a hotel affiliated credit card so you can start earning points. Some of these only apply to particular situations so only ask those that might apply to you:

  • Do you require we travel with a group?
  • How often do you schedule the groups?
  • Can I book my own in country travel arrangements?
  • If you don’t have parents travel in groups, will we be responsible for getting ourselves to and from the airport and various adoption related appointments?
  • Will I be able to travel during a trade fair or Chinese holiday if I don’t mind paying the additional travel expenses?
  • If I am adopting an aging out child or a child with a medical expedite will I still be required to wait for a travel group?
  • When is the typical length of time between TA and travel for your clients?
  • Am I required to stay at a particular hotel or work with a particular travel agency?
  • Can I stay at a hotel other than the one you use?
  • Can I use frequent flier miles or hotel points to save money on my travel expenses?
  • Are group trips to destinations such as the Great Wall or the Guangzhou zoo optional or required?  If I don’t attend will I still need to pay for it?
  • Do you allow one parent to travel alone?
  • Can we bring along our whole big family?  (My agency said “Sure!  We love it when the whole family goes!”)
  • Does your agency allow us to send the orphanage donation by electronic funds transfer?  Only a few do so this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker but it’s good to know because it’s never to early to start haunting your bank for new $100 bills.

Other posts in this series:

Which comes first, the agency or the child?

All About the Money 

Special Adoption Situations

 

 

Which comes first, the child or the agency?

IMG_0061_2As you can tell, we have had a great experience with our adoption.  I participate in several different online groups or forums and find that I really like talking to people who are starting off in the process.  I have already written a few posts that are intended to help people who are beginning an adoption from China.  Now I am going to start a new series which is about choosing an agency.  Isn’t it rough that the most important decision you will make in the entire process happens right up front when you don’t really even know what questions you should be asking?  I will link these posts to my Adoption Resources tab as I write them and currently I am drafting four posts in the series–after this one will be Comparing Agencies, All About the Money, and Special Adoption Situations.

If you ask any sort of “How do I start off?” question in a China adoption group, there will be many responses which say “We found our child first and just used the agency he/she was listed with.”  To understand how this is an option you need to first have an understanding of the different designations of files in China for special needs adoption.

LID only files– To adopt a child from China, parents must first compile a dossier which proves that they are qualified to adopt.  The dossier is sent to China where it is given a Log In Date when it is logged into the Chinese computer system.  Children who are designated LID only are reserved for those who already have a dossier logged into China’s system.

Every time I see a file I’m interested in, it’s LID only. Why is that?  Don’t they want these kids to find families?!

Most of the people who adopt from China will want to adopt a child who is very young and with minor needs.  At a certain point, someone in China realized that the young children with minor needs were not going to have any trouble finding homes.  In fact, most agencies have a waiting list of parents who are waiting to adopt them.  People would “lock” these files before their dossier was ready, hit a snag with their homestudy or immigration approval and the child was still sitting around in the orphanage, getting older.  By reserving these files for people who already have a dossier logged in, it moves the children through the system faster, getting them out of orphanages and into homes.

What types of files are LID only?  What exactly does “young with minor needs mean?”IMG_0548

China decides whether a file will be LID only or not.  Usually it is children under the age of 3 with minor needs.  But because people overwhelmingly prefer to adopt girls, they will accept a girl who is older and with more involved needs rather than adopt a boy.  As a result, girls are often labeled LID only up to through age 5-7, or with more significant medical needs.  However, there are no established guidelines for this and it sometimes seems pretty random which files get the LID only designation–I once saw a 6 year old boy with four different special needs listed as LID only.

If you know that you would like to adopt a young child with minor needs, and especially if you want to adopt a girl, LID only is probably the route for you.  You should find your agency first and I suggest one with multiple orphanage partnerships.  Skip down below for more information on partnerships.

What if no one is interested in the file?  Will it always be LID only?

If no one has sent a letter of intent to adopt a child after three months the LID only file can be switched to special focus.  This opens a wider pool of prospective adoptive families for the child, and hopefully will enable them to find a family.  I do not know if this switch of label happens automatically, or if an agency needs to request it.

Special Focus Files- Special Focus files are files which are open to a wider pool of adoptive families.  China has some pretty strict criteria for adoptive parents including marriage/divorce, BMI, health, and financial guidelines.  You can request a waiver if you don’t meet some of the criteria, and sometimes with a waiver comes the requirement that you adopt from the pool of special focus files.  Because these kids need a little more help finding a family, China will allow single moms, those with a history of depression, or other special circumstances to adopt them.

Special focus files may be matched to a family who has not yet completed a dossier.  So when people say that they find their child first, they are referring to special focus children.

What is the profile of a special focus child?

Special focus files have a huge variety of ages and needs.  Young boys with minor needs are often designated special focus simply because fewer people want to adopt boys.  I have seen boys as young as 6 months with minor needs designated special focus (see previous comments about the designations being somewhat random).  Usually the young girls will have more complex medical needs.  Needs such as blindness, Down Syndrome, or children who need wheelchairs are almost always special focus regardless of age or gender.  Older children are more likely to have minor or repaired needs and are special focus because of their age.

IMG_0536So if I find a special focus child I’d like to adopt then I can be matched with this child before I ever start the process?  Is there a downside that I’m missing here?

Many people prefer to adopt from China by finding their child first, but there are a few downsides.  The first is that you do not get to choose the agency.  Maybe your child is with a great agency.  But maybe the child is with the most expensive agency or maybe you start reading online and hear only negative comments about this agency.  Good or bad, you are stuck with the agency who has the file that you want.  You might want to consider reading through the rest of the blog posts in this series to narrow down your agencies choices and then look at their waiting child lists to find your child.  At the very least, I would figure out which agencies to avoid.  Read through the Comparing Agencies post to see which questions to ask, particularly the section on asking how an agency will determine which family will be matched with a waiting child from a photolisting if more than one family is interested.

The other downside is that the process will seem longer for you this way.  Usually you would at least be through the homestudy process before you are matched and often your dossier would already be in China.  We were matched very early in the process and were absolutely in love with our son.  Then our social worker took six weeks after the last homestudy visit to write the homestudy.  She took a 2 week vacation!  Then we hit an immigration snag.  Our immigration officer said our file was on her desk and said we would be approved by the end of the week.  Instead, she went on vacation too!  It was so difficult to have seen our son’s face and know that he was just sitting in the orphanage getting older as one thing after another happened to delay our process.  Now in the end, our process was one of the fastest with him coming home in under a year, but everyone will hit snags.  Before you start viewing all the photolistings be sure to consider how you will feel about this aspect of being matched early.

You mentioned knowing which agencies to avoid, what sort of things should I look for that are red flags?

Many people, when still in the thinking about it stage of adoption, will view waiting child photolistings.  Agencies know this is a good way to get new clients.  Many of the established well-respected agencies will only list special focus children that they can’t place with families already committed to their agencies.  Other agencies who are smaller, or perhaps not quite so ethically minded, will manipulate their photolistings.  They use some variation of these bait-and-switch tactics:

  • Posting children they know they will place with other families.  They will post a girl with IMG_0179minor needs and when you inquire they will say that they have another family already committed to her but they would be happy to work with you to find another child for your family.
  • They selectively list a child’s needs so that she seems more minor needs than she is.  Many of the children now have multiple needs so they might only mention a heart condition and not cerebral palsy.
  • They keep old files up on their website to make it appear that they receive more files than they do.  I know that one agency in particular will keep children up listed as “matched” who have been home with families for over a year.  Remember that the amount of children you see on an agency photolisting does not in any way indicate the amount of files an agency receives.
  • Look at what they promise on their website.  Be very wary of any agency that still characterizes adoption from China as being young girls, or states that most children have needs that are minor, correctable, or already repaired.
  • The non-special needs (or “healthy” child) program with China is effectively no more.  If you find an agency who is still still accepting applications for this program even though the wait is currently more than 8 years for a referral, I would be concerned.
  • Check for the cost sheet.  I will talk about cost related issues in the next post but be aware that the most ethical and reputable agencies will post not only all of their charges for an adoption through their China program, but will also have a link somewhere to their total operating budget.  Some agencies may choose not to post this info because they don’t want to scare off potential clients because of the cost of adoption, but they should make it easy to obtain a full accounting of their China program.
  • You should not have to pay an agency to view waiting child profiles.  Many agencies will require at least an e-mail address and often have you fill out a prospective parent questionnaire.  Some agencies will require you to pay to view a file, or have a paid application with them to view a file, and while this isn’t necessarily a red flag be aware that many agencies will not charge at all for viewing a file so if you are in the “just looking” phase you can look at files with other agencies without any cost.
  • Watch out for pressure tactics.  Some agencies that fish heavily for clients through photolistings will let multiple families view a file at the same time and then place the file with the first family to decide to move forward.  While this method of placing a child is not unusual, some agencies can turn it into “Hurry and act now if you want this child!”  This is a big decision and if an agency is pressuring you to quickly commit then walk away.  It indicates the agency is more concerned about closing the deal than finding the best placement for a child.

To check any individual agency, do a google search for “agencyname + scam or ethics.”  You can also join the Rate Your Chinese Adoption Agency Facebook group and search for feedback there. Just keep in mind that no agency is going to please 100% of their clients. If an agency has a waiting child that you are very interested in, don’t be scared off by a bad review or two. Just screen for persistent serious problems. There are many great agencies out there!

I like the idea of finding a child first and I think we are pretty open as far as gender, age, and special need are concerned.  Where can I find waiting children to see if we can find our child?

There are a couple of different options for you. You can check different agencies’ waiting child pages.  If you are on Facebook you can join Find My China Child where you post what sort of child you are looking for and people post waiting children who meet that profile.

There is China Waiting Child Advocacy which is a Facebook group where advocates post children who have not yet been matched. It is a great resource to get more info on the various needs because when someone posts a child often in the comments someone will say “I’ve never heard of that. What would that special need involve?” and there will be a good discussion.

The Advocate for WC yahoo group actually has files which include snapshots of the shared list and folders which are arranged by need. So, for example, you could see all of the children waiting who have albinism.  Rainbow Kids also lets you search by special need.

There are also many different advocacy blogs.  Two of my favorites are Twenty Less and Coleman Bunk Beds.

Most of the kids you will find on advocacy groups are with agencies, but some agencies will release files if they do not have any interested clients.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve been looking at special focus children I’m really overwhelmed by the needs that I’m seeing!  We have to adopt a special focus child because of <whatever reason> and I’m afraid we won’t be able to find a child that fits our family!

The children who you see on photolistings and through advocacy avenues are the children who are more difficult to place.  Agencies have access to a larger pool of children, and they will place those with minor or moderate needs first with people who are already clients of their agency.  If you sign with any agency then they will be looking for a child that meets the profile you submitted when you completed the medical needs form, and as a waiting client you will be considered when they receive new partnership files or they will be on the lookout for new additions to the shared list.

Partnership files– Under the partnership system, agencies cultivate a relationship with an orphanage.  The orphanage receives needed resources such as material aid, medical or teaching consultation.  Agencies can take more time to match the children with the right family who is waiting and the family has more time to review a file.  Agencies can travel to the orphanage and get more information on a child, to interact with them and get video to add to the file.  For older children or those with harder to place needs, the agency can advocate for them through newsletters, blog posts, etc knowing that they will have the file and not fear that after they find a family the file will have disappeared off the shared list.

I think the partnership system, while not perfect, is an improvement.  Once a month files are added to the shared list and it used to be that on that day there was basically a feeding frenzy while the agencies rushed to match families with files the instant they appeared.  Families had two days to make a decision, which wasn’t always enough time to get a thorough review from a doctor.  Files are still added to the shared list, but since many orphanages are now participants of the partnership system, there are fewer orphanages whose files are added directly to the list.

At any given time there are about 2000 children waiting on the shared list for families.  Of that number, about 300 will be girls and the remaining 1700 will be boys.  Many of these harder to place children will be passed from agency to agency for a time so that the agency can advocate for them specifically and hopefully after being highlighted at one of these agencies they will find a family.  I know people have concerns that the partnership system is preventing kids from getting families but files most are interested in (the young minor needs girls) are not going to languish at an agency, and even the boys will be placed within 3-6 months.  I think it is more likely that kids get lost on the shared list as their file stagnates without an agency publicizing it and maybe requesting an update.

Most agencies have at least one partnership now and larger agencies will have over a dozen.  The more partnerships an agency has, the more files they will have access to so you will be matched faster.  However, more partnerships mean a greater financial commitment from the agency so this will raise the operating costs of the agency and usually therefore, the fees you pay to the agency.  More on this in the money post.

 I’ve seen some files on agency lists that I’m interested in but they won’t transfer them!  It’s all about IMG_0653the money!

When people are searching online for potential children, they often become frustrated that an agency won’t release the file to the agency they are working with.  The potential parent has already made a financial commitment to their agency and it is understandable that they would not want to lose money by switching agencies.  At the same time, adoptive parents need to realize that agencies do need to make enough money to stay in business.  International adoption numbers have plummeted the past decade and there is now a lot of competition for the few families who are adopting.  Agencies especially rely on the files of young girls to make enough money to stay in the black.  Several smaller agencies have closed within the past two years, so this is reality for the agencies.

So when will agencies transfer files?  It depends on the agency and for some the answer is never.  Other agencies will transfer if they have no families who have shown interest in the file.  It is most likely that an agency will transfer a file if it is not a young girl, or if it is almost to the end of the time that the file is designed to them.  Typically agencies have LID only files for one month and special focus files for three months.  Agencies are least likely to transfer a partnership file because when they enter into the partnership agreement they commit to placing 80% of the files that they receive from the partner orphanage.  China will end a partnership if the agency does not live up to this part of the bargain.

One last thing to keep in mind is that while you might feel very sure this child is the child for you, agencies have experienced times when file transfers have not worked out.  A couple has assured them that they are committed to this child, they transfer the file, and a week or two later the child shows up on the other agency’s wait child photolisting because the couple changed their mind.  After agencies experience this a few times, they become less likely to transfer because they know that they will lose the chance to find the child a family if the couple they transfer the child for changed their mind.  So while you may be frustrated, keep in mind there is more involved than the agency not caring if the child gets a family.  With that being said, some agencies are better about transferring files than others, and it would be wonderful if all agencies would transfer the files of aging out children and those who have serious medical conditions. If you find an agency that won’t transfer the file you are interested in, ask when their designation for the file will end and if they will contact you or your agency if they still haven’t placed the child by the end of that time period.

Other posts in this series:

Comparing Agencies

All About The Money

Special Adoption Situations

One Year Home

Before I start on this post I wanted to note that I have updated the China 101 page with a few more items.  I marked them as “new” so you could easily see what has been added.

Can you believe that it has been one year since Leo joined our family?  Neither can I!  Remember how it took almost two months for Leo to decide I wasn’t just the family nanny?  july4th
And let’s not even talk about how many months it took for him to not cry when the dogs entered the room.  How about how long for him to learn to eat with a spoon or walk on the grass?  Those days are long gone and now life is pretty fun.  As fun as celebrating the 4th of July as a new American citizen!

While I would love to say that we’ve had a nice leisurely summer, it really hasn’t been because of the various medical and therapy related appointments.  After we moved, I had to find a new pediatrician for the children.  Because we live in a much larger city now, there is a big children’s hospital with a cleft clinic.  We had our first visit there.  A cleft clinic is where you see a variety of medical personnel all one after the other, usually taking up a couple of hours.  They are all experienced in cleft palate issues and work together to come up with a treatment plan for your individual child.  Leo will be seen at the cleft clinic yearly until adulthood and they will handle any future surgeries that he might need.  He will also be seeing an ENT at 6 months between cleft clinic visits.  He is scheduled to get tubes placed in his ears next month.

I was very impressed by the level of care that we received.  We got good information, such as that Leo is unlikely to need orthodontic or dental work due to his cleft plate.  We got information which was not so good.  The speech language pathologist determined that Leo is not making any sounds which use his repaired palate, even though his palate has been repaired for 10 months.  We were referred to a speech therapist who specially trained in cleft palate speech issues and Leo now has weekly speech therapy with her.  I can’t say that the new therapist has caused his speech issues to magically disappear, but we now have a better understanding of the long hard road to speech that many cleft palate children will face.  Leo continues to make slow and steady progress–he’s now using more two word sentences, but we know that speech therapy will be a part of our life for many years.

waterLeo is signing “water” in the picture to the right because these steps lead down to a lake.  Signs still come easier to him than words.  He will start using a sign as soon as I show him, and we all look up more ASL signs for him because he likes to be able to communicate.  He knows many animal signs now, and we recently taught him dinosaur, dragon, and bear because he always points them out in books.  His new favorite is “frog.”  I found a shirt with a frog on it for him and he wants to wear it whenever it is clean.  As soon as he sees it in the drawer he pulls it out and signs frog.  He will point to it and sign frog throughout the day.

We have been trying to still make time for fun when we aren’t having yet another referral visit to the doctor.  There are many parks, playgrounds, and museums in our new city.  Leo loves playgrounds.  In the fall, he found swings and slides scary.  Now he will go down tall slides, loves to swing, and his brothers have taught him to climb up slides as well.  His motor skills have improved tremendously from what they were a year ago.  Leo does not appreciate nature hikes as much as the rest of the family.  He reminds me of Gregory, who used to start saying “Can we go back to the van?  I’m tired and hungry.  My feet hurt!” about six feet down the hiking trail.  As long as he is in the stroller, Leo is happy to be along for the ride.  He can say “stroller” now and runs to truckthe garage if he hears us mention it.

Leo has now been moved up to a big boy bed.  We bought a bunk bed for him to share with Max.  I wondered if he would be okay leaving the crib but he was extremely excited to sleep on the bottom bunk.  He tossed his pillow and blanket up on the bed without a backward glance at the crib.  He taps his chest (sign for  Leo’s or mine) and say “bed . . . Max!” over and over again.  He often says it as I’m tucking him in for the night.  He adores Max and tries to wake him up first thing in the morning so that they can start having fun right away.  I think the feeling is mutual because Max said “I really like being a big brother” and when I said that was convenient since he has three younger brothers, he replied “I really just meant a big brother to Leo.”

I don’t have much more to say.  He’s still a happy, affectionate little guy!  We’ve so blessed to have him in our family!

From this tippy little guy in the summer of 2012
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Becoming a family in the early fall of 2013 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

And family for a full year in 2014!

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