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?



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?



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



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