When choosing an agency, no one ever says “I’ll use an unethical agency.” The problem is that agency ethics is a little harder to quantify than agency costs, wait times, or travel plans. I frequently see people recommending the agency they used by saying “Use Agency X! They’re very ethical. We had no problems with our adoption.” Having a good experience with an agency is completely separate from whether or not an agency is ethical. You can have a good experience without realized you were scammed out of money. You can have a good experience adopting a child who was trafficked. You can have a good experience after paying a bribe. In fact, I think the point of paying a bribe is to prevent you from having a bad experience.
If you want to make sure you choose an agency which will give you a good experience but ALSO be acting an in ethical manner, how can you figure out which are truly ethical? Let’s look at some of the aspects which fall under ethics.
One of the first things people think of when it comes to ethics is whether an agency is going to charge more money than is necessary. This is an aspect that I have written quite a bit about but agencies make it very difficult to get the information you need. When I surveyed agency websites only a third posted a detailed cost sheet and only two or three posted their IRS 990, operating budget, or had a third party audit conducted. Uncovering excessive travel charges in advance is virtually impossible. The most important things you can do to try to find a financially ethical agency are:
- Look for the agency cost sheet and go over it in detail.
- If you have to pay post placement costs up front, make sure they are held in escrow and will be refundable if the agency closes or you move.
- Ask about their post placement requirements. Some agencies require a one month visit even though China does not to try to head off problems early. This is more understandable to me than agencies which require a social worker conduct the final visits which China will let you self-report.
- Get agency refund policies in writing. No one expects to lose a job or have a major health issue but if these things happen very early in the adoption process you will want to be with an agency that will refund at least a portion of fees you have paid.
- Try to avoid wishful thinking. Remember “Buyer Beware.”
There have been multiple times where someone asked for my opinion on an agency. When I point out that it is not a good idea financially to pay thousands in agency fees before you ever begin your home study the response is usually “But I talked to them for an hour on the phone and they are so nice! They said we would definitely pass the home study. They said they couldn’t help us start the process until all of these fees are paid.” I’m sorry to break it to you but unethical people can be very nice. No one would give them money if they weren’t. They can lie to tell you there will be no problems and later appear convincingly surprised that a problem popped up. Having the tools you need to make a good decision will not help if you don’t use them.
This seems basic, but an ethical agency should follow all laws and policies governing adoption including state law, US law, and relevant international law. It doesn’t matter if you think the policy is stupid. It doesn’t matter if the agency thinks they have a really good reason for going around (BREAKING) the law. Ethical agencies might advocate for changes, but they follow the law until the day those changes are implemented.
The first thing you should do is check to see if an agency has substantiated claims from the accrediting bureau. This means the accrediting entity has investigated client complaints and found them to be valid. The document containing these complaints is substantial so I have culled the ones relevant to agencies with a China program in this post.
However, not everything makes it to this list. You should also take the time to google the name of the agency with keywords like “ethics” “fraud” “scam” or “lawsuit.” Join the Rate Your China Adoption Agency group on Facebook. Use the search feature to look up former conversations about the agency. I would not be concerned about one or two people having a bad experience with an agency. What you are looking for is a consistent pattern of client complaints.
Many Christian families who adopt prefer to use a Christian agency. Typically this means an agency which requires families to sign a Statement of Faith stating that they share the same (protestant Christian) theological beliefs as the agency. If you are a Christian family, I want to caution you to be diligent about investigating potential agencies. It is a very sad fact that many “Christian” agencies are the worst ethics offenders. There are two reasons for this. One is that Christians put a lot of trust into other Christians and unscrupulous people take advantage of that. Here is a story which is a good example. The Ethiopian international adoption program was closed because of the widespread child trafficking with two of the biggest offenders being “Christian” agencies.
The other reason is Christian agencies have their own separate agenda, so to speak. For many, international adoption is important because it places non-Christian children into Christian homes. A typical sentiment is “We want the children we serve to have forever families, but more than that, we want them to know the truth of the Gospel.” If that is the primary goal, agencies can sometimes go down the “the end justifies the means” path. Many of the substantiated claims found against Christian agencies are either not making sure their in-country workers are conducting legal adoptions (obtaining children who are not legal orphans falls under this category) or not making sure families are sufficiently qualified or prepared to adopt.
I understand and appreciate that many families want to use an agency which shares their beliefs and who can pray alongside them in the process. But please take the time to make sure you aren’t being taken advantage of by an agency that is Christian in name only.
Running a business
The final category is the most fuzzy. International adoption is a business. If an agency doesn’t place enough children, they will not be able to stay financially solvent. It can be difficult for agencies to strike a balance between placing the best interests of the children first and keeping their business successful. A successful business will satisfy clients. However, policies that keep clients happy are not always policies that place the well-being of the child first. This is the difference between finding children for clients (we’ve already discussed how this can lead to trafficking) versus finding families for children. One reason the partnership system was stopped by China is the potential for pressure to be placed, intentionally or not, on orphanages to produce a certain number of the most adoptable children (young with minor needs) for their partner agency because the orphanage is receiving financial support. Is the agency receiving enough of the kind of files they want to make the financial commitment of the partnership worth it?
One of the things that many people in an agency is if they let families decide what they can handle–meaning they don’t have agency rules about adopting out of birth order, pregnancy while adopting, or adopting more than one child at once back when this was permitted by China. One could certainly argue that it would be in the best interest of the children to at least consider these policies on a case-by-case basis instead of “whatever you want, we can make happen.” I have a close friend who was surprised that their agency sent an email letting them know they could adopt two at once when they had never expressed interest. Was this trying to “sell” more adoptions?
Another popular agency policy is how strictly an agency keeps to application/MCC date for referrals. Parents feel that first come, first served is a fair principle. However, when a child with a serious medical condition is referred to a family who hasn’t started their home study rather than a family already LID simply because of the MCC date, is it in the child’s best interest to wait months longer if they aren’t approved for a medical expedite? The policies that are most disliked by parents such as deciding matching by committee are ones which are trying to put the needs of the child over the needs of the client. I know people argue passionately on both sides of these issues, but I think this is at the heart of why some people might view an agency as being business centered rather than child centered. The more children you place, the more money you make. The happier you keep your clients, the more business you will get.
None of these practices are exactly unethical. However, it’s important to remember that what makes an agency popular is giving clients what they want. Try to look for signs that an agency views the children they place as a product.
- Does the agency advocate for children who are older or who have more intensive needs?
- Do featured client family photos show families with older children or visible needs or do all of the family photos seem to have very cute young children?
- Does the website have information to educate families about older child adoption and the different kinds of medical needs or does it seem focused on telling you that you can be matched with a young child with minor needs relatively quickly?
Regardless of the child profile you are wanting to adopt, looking for these things is a good way to discern whether an agency is truly trying to find homes for children or whether they are trying to pull in as many clients as possible. Choosing to give your business to a reputable child-centered agency is the best way to close down unethical agencies.