Archive for May, 2010

Adoptive Parents: Six Tips for Choosing a Lawyer


So, you’ve decided you want to adopt a child, and you know the next step is to contact an adoption lawyer. Before you Google “adoption lawyer” and choose one at random, check out these six quick tips for choosing an adoption attorney.

  • If you think you might need an adoption attorney, then you do. The best time to contact an adoption attorney is as soon as you know that you want to adopt a child. In addition to explaining the legal process and the costs involved, a good adoption lawyer can also help you decide whether you want an open or a closed adoption, a domestic or an international adoption, and so forth.
  • When you get an adoption lawyer, get an adoption lawyer. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people call the lawyer who did their will or who defended them when they got a traffic ticket. Adoption is a highly specialized and complex area of the law, and not one that is taught in law schools. Attorneys who specialize in adoption have developed their expertise after law school through study and mentorship. Further, lawyers who focus on adoption tend to be knowledgeable about the whole process, not just the parts that take place in court. They can give you tips for your search for a birth mother, refer you to a social worker to do your home study, and recommend support groups and other resources that will help you along the way. Look for a lawyer whose practice is 50% adoption or higher.
  • Use the grapevine. One of the best ways to find an adoption attorney is to ask friends who have adopted for their recommendations. If you don’t know anyone who has adopted, look for an adoptive parents’ support group that can give you referrals or put you in touch with other adoptive parents. Further, the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys is a widely-respected association of adoption lawyers that maintains a list of qualified adoption lawyers by geographic area.
  • Shop around. If possible, interview more than one adoption attorney and choose the one you feel the most comfortable with. Most lawyers offer a free or low-cost consultation. Remember that this is a person with whom you will share your hopes and dreams about growing your family, and whom you will probably call many, many times with questions and worries about the process, so it’s important that you are comfortable talking to him or her. If the lawyer pressures you, seems insensitive to your feelings, or otherwise rubs you the wrong way, don’t be afraid to move on.
  • Please leave a message after the beep. If you leave the lawyer a message, pay attention to how quickly they return your call. Would you want to wait that long if you had a question about bringing your adopted child home? The best adoption attorneys are quick to return calls because they know that adoptive parents have enough anxiety already!
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. You know the questions I mean. Questions like “how much do you charge?” and “what happens to my retainer if the birth mother changes her mind?” Some lawyers charge a flat fee instead of an hourly rate for simple cases so that you know up-front what your costs will be. Lawyers that bill hourly should be experienced enough to give you a good idea of how many hours to expect. While price is important to everyone, bear in mind that an experienced adoption lawyer will take fewer hours to do the work than someone who is less experienced, so a higher hourly rate may be well worth it.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Adoption Legal News


It’s been a busy month for changes in the adoption laws of several states.  On Friday the governor of Illinois  signed a bill that makes it possible for adult adoptees to get copies of their original birth certificates (read the full article here).  The law takes into account the concerns of birth mothers who do not want to be “found” by allowing them to opt out and have their names blacked out on the birth certificates if they wish.

Many people aren’t aware that in most states, when an adoption is finalized, the state creates a new birth certificate showing the names of the adoptive parents, exactly as if they had given birth to their adopted child.  The original birth certificate with the birth mother’s name is then placed under seal and can’t be accessed even by the child whose birth it records.  This has been a source of frustration for many adult adoptees seeking information about their backgrounds.

Meanwhile, Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina signed an adoption reform bill today that focuses on making it easier for foster parents to adopt their foster children.  More controversially, the bill also lessens the legal emphasis on keeping birth families together in cases where the birth parents are mentally ill or abusing drugs.  You can read an article about the South Carolina bill here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these laws and whether you feel they are a step in the right direction.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Decision Points: Beyond “Open vs. Closed”


How much information to share in adoption is one of the first and most important decisions that both birth mothers and adoptive parents make when starting the process. Although many people talk about deciding between open and closed adoption, in truth there is a large spectrum between those two extremes. Below are some points on the spectrum between open and closed, to get you started thinking about what makes sense for your adoption.

  • A completely closed adoption, where there is no contact between the birth parent(s) and the adoptive parent(s) after the adoption is final, is appropriate in those rare cases where the birth mother has abused the child or is not willing to consider a relationship of any kind. In these cases, it is important to get as much information as possible about the birth parents, particularly medical records.
  • Even families who are very sensitive to privacy concerns can preserve the child’s choice to know his birth parents. If the parties agree, the birth mother, father, or both can keep their contact information current with the adoption attorney or agency, leaving the option open for the child to contact them when he is old enough if he wishes to do so.
  • Especially in cases where the birth mother is a family member or otherwise close to the adoptive parents, some people are very concerned about preserving privacy during the initial bonding process with a new baby. In this case, the parties might agree that the birth mother will not have contact with the child during the first year or two after the adoption.
  • Exchanging letters and photos can be a wonderful way to maintain a relationship with a birth mother. One common arrangement is to exchange letters and photographs every month for the first year, then once or twice a year thereafter. If privacy is a concern, the letters can be mailed to the attorney’s office or adoption agency and then forwarded so that addresses are not exchanged. Some adoptive families receive letters and photos from the birth mother to the adopted child, while others are comfortable only with sending letters and photos to her.
  • Some of the most joyful adoptive families I have seen include the birth mother in important events like birthdays and family reunions. I even know families who include their adopted child’s birth mother in the annual family portrait!
  • If the adoptive parents and the birth mother live in the same town, please consider that it will be less awkward to have an open and friendly relationship than to try to pretend that the birth mother doesn’t exist or to dread seeing her at the supermarket.

The key to success is for all parties to talk openly about their boundaries and expectations, while remembering that adoption is about what is best for the child, not what is most comfortable for the parents.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Birth Mothers: 6 Things to Know about Working with a Lawyer

For many birth mothers who have decided to place their babies for adoption, it is the first time they have ever worked with a lawyer. Here are six tips to make the process less intimidating.

Know that your legal expenses will be paid by the adoptive parents. Many birth mothers don’t realize that the adoptive family will pay for their lawyers’ fees and any court costs involved in the adoption.

Know that you have the right to a lawyer who represents only you. Although the lawyer’s fees are paid by the adoptive parents, that lawyer represents only you, your interests, and what you want. If you feel that the lawyer is pressuring you to go through with the adoption or have any doubts that he or she is looking out for your best interests, find another lawyer.

Don’t be afraid to ask your lawyer to help you get what you want. So many birth mothers feel that they don’t have the right to ask for what they want, but nothing could be further from the truth. If you want to have a say in what the baby’s name is, keep your baby’s hospital bracelet or footprints, or get photos of your baby twice a year, ask your lawyer to negotiate this for you. Similarly, your lawyer can advise you about what expenses the adoptive parents are allowed to pay for you. Remember that even though you are placing your child for adoption, it’s still your child, and you are in the driver’s seat until after your consent to the adoption is final.

If you are confused about the process, ask your lawyer to explain it again. And again. And again, until you are absolutely comfortable that you understand. How long do you have to change your mind about the adoption? Is the adoptive family’s promise to send you photos every year enforceable? How long will the adoptive family pay for counseling for you? If your lawyer can’t answer your questions about the adoption process, find another lawyer.

Take advantage of the fact that you have a lawyer to help you with awkward moments. While it can be tempting to call the adoptive parents directly to talk about issues with the adoption, it’s a better idea to call your lawyer instead. The lawyer is an objective person who knows your rights and who can negotiate for you without getting emotional.

Don’t be afraid to ask your lawyer to help you find more support. In addition to knowing the law, a good lawyer will know about resources like support groups, help with medical care, welfare, and other resources that can help you during the adoption process, and even resources to help you keep your baby, if that’s what you want.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Being an Ally to Transracially Adopted Children


During my travels on the web today, I ran across this post from Jae Ran Kim’s excellent transracial adoption blog Harlow’s Monkey. The entry lists some “behaviors and attitudes of allies to transracially adopted persons,” but if you ask me, they are behaviors and attitudes that we would all be wise to cultivate. Here are a few great examples from the list:

  • Interrupt racially offensive jokes, no matter what racial or ethnic group they are about.
  • Educate yourself about and support the social justice issues and causes of the racial and ethnic community your child belongs to, both in the US and from the country of origin.
  • Let your actions speak louder than your words. Participate in your child’s racial/ethnic community because you value the diversity, not just for your child.
  • Don’t expect your child’s racial or ethnic community to welcome you just because you want to participate.
  • Know there are different ways of doing and seeing everything.
  • Demonstrate your ally role through your actions rather than trying to convince others of it through your words.

I thought of a few other items I would add to Jae Ran Kim’s list:

  • Support child’s wish to explore and embrace her racial and ethnic origins, and know that it is not a rejection of you.
  • Don’t deny or dismiss your child’s experiences with discrimination. Some parents wish so deeply for their child to share the privileges that come with being white in America that they refuse to listen to their child’s experience of racism.
  • Understand that it is normal for your child to have some negative emotions about being adopted, and that it doesn’t take away from the positive emotions that he has about being a member of your family.
  • Talk openly and often about race and racism (at an age-appropriate level) within your family. It gives children the language they need to talk about their experience, and prevents parents from pretending that race issues don’t exist in our culture.
  • Further Reading: Transracial Parenting in Foster Care and Adoption, prepared by the Iowa Foster & Adoptive Parents Association.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Ethics in Adoption


Adoption ethics issues have been popping up like crocuses in the news lately. The New Yorker ran a fascinating article by John Seabrook this week entitled “The Last Babylift,” in which he describes his experience adopting his daughter from Haiti after the earthquake. (The New Yorker requires a subscription to view the article, but you can hear an interview with the author on NPR’s Fresh Air here). In addition to providing an intriguing peek into those chaotic post-quake days, Seabrook’s article also gives a fine history of international adoption and raises a number of troubling ethical questions. During the same week, American Public Media’s show Marketplace ran this piece on adoption from China, highlighting the unethical practices of some adoption agencies there who pay high prices for babies, leading to duress and even kidnapping. And of course, we have all heard the story of Artyem Savilev, whose adoptive mother returned him to Russia alone with a note claiming he is “unmanageable.”

These pieces bring up a number of difficult ethics questions. If a birth mother is too poor to care for her child, is her decision to give him up for adoption really voluntary? Is it really in the best interests of children to remove them from their native culture? Is it ever acceptable to pay a birth mother for giving up her child? What responsibilities do adoption agencies have in revealing any mental and behavioral problems that adoptive children might have? In short, what constitutes an ethical adoption?

Here is my list of ideals for ethical adoption. I say “ideals” because the reality of adoption is often quite different, especially in international contexts where cultural norms, laws, and language can make it difficult to be absolutely sure these safeguards are in place. However, bearing these ideals in mind will point us in the right direction, both when adopting a child and when asking our lawmakers to improve the adoption laws.

1. An ethical adoption is one in which the birth mother is paid only for her reasonable expenses in carrying and caring for the baby. In the United States, each state dictates by law what expenses may be paid to the birth mother, and improper payments can void the adoption. This helps ensure that birth mothers aren’t being bribed to give up their babies.

2. An ethical adoption is one in which steps are taken to make sure the birth mother was not pressured into giving up her child. There should be good documentation of where the child came from and under what circumstances he was given up. Ideally, the birth mother should have counseling about the options available to her and the emotions she is likely to go through during and after the adoption.

3. An ethical adoption is one in which adoptive parents are fully informed of all health problems (physical, mental, and behavioral) of which the agency and social workers are aware. This is the right thing to do for both the parents and the child, as it gives the family the opportunity to prepare to support that child’s needs as completely as possible.

4. An ethical adoption is one in which the adoptive parents understand that adoption is forever. Just as birth mothers should be counseled about the permanency and emotional difficulty of adoption, birth parents should receive counseling as well. Whether the adoption agency disclosed all information about the child’s physical, mental, and behavioral problems or not, the adoptive parents are the “real” parents the moment the adoption is finalized. Adoptive parents must understand that in adoptive parenting as in biological parenting, there are no guarantees…and no returns.

5. An ethical adoption is one in which the adoptive parents acknowledge and honor the child’s origins. All human beings, including the smallest, have the right to know about who they are and where they came from. The ideal adoption allows a child to know about her past (conveyed at an age-appropriate level) and celebrate her native culture. Many adoptive parents fear that talking about their child’s birth parents and native culture out of a vague fear that the child will want to go back to her country and family of birth. However, in my experience, the more information a child has about who she is and where she came from, the better adjusted she will be in her adoptive family and culture.

6. An ethical adoption is one in which the birth father has been given an opportunity to be heard. Although birth fathers are often the forgotten party in adoptions, it is absurd to assume that fathers love their children any less than mothers do. Absent extreme circumstances such as where the father is abusive, birth fathers should be given notice of the adoption and an opportunity to object.

Do you have other ideals to add to the list? Do you agree with these? Please do join the discussion!

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

U.S. Reaches Accord with Russia on Adoptions


A senior Russian official announced today that Russia and the U.S. have reached an agreement on oversight of adoptions. When it is signed, the accord will lift the effective ban on adoptions to the U.S. that Russia put in place after a woman returned her adopted son to Russia alone last month citing behavioral problems.

The accord requires American adoption agencies and adoptive parents to make regular reports on the well-being of the adopted child, as well as requiring them to allow social workers to check on the child.

In addition to being a good step to protect children, the agreement is wonderful news for the approximately 3,000 families who are currently in the process of adopting children from Russia.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Happy Mother’s Day


Cards have been given and brunches eaten, and I would like to add my best wishes to all mothers on Mother’s Day.

I’m talking to you, adoptive mothers who go through all the hard work of parenting plus answering delicate questions from your child and indelicate ones from strangers.

I’m talking to you, birth mothers who have had the courage and the strength to place your babies for adoption to give them a better life.

I’m talking to you, foster mothers who have opened your homes to one child or many children who otherwise might not have ever known family life at all.

And I’m talking to those who are still waiting for a child, knowing that the instinct to give love and share a life with a child is what makes you “real” parents, no matter how your child comes into your life.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Why and How to Make a “Life Book” for Your Adopted Child

Making a “Life Book” for your adopted child is a wonderful way to make her feel important and connected to her new family, as well as helping to answer the question all adopted children carry in their hearts: “Where did I come from?” While it may seem counterintuitive to say that knowing more about his birth family helps a child feel more connected to his adoptive family, the truth is that children feel more accepted and loved when every aspect of them – including the time before they were adopted – is celebrated.

What goes in a Life Book is largely up to you and your child. Here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Start before placement. One of the most precious parts of a Life Book is information from before your child came to live in your home. Write journal entries about how much you are looking forward to having a child to love. Write about the adoption process, how you chose your child’s name, your first trip to his birth country, etc. Most importantly, gather as much information as you can about your child early on. To the extent possible, get information about and photos of the birth parents (hobbies, favorite things, job, etc.). If your child was in an orphanage, try to get photos of it and information about your child from the staff to record in the book. While information can sometimes be difficult to track down, it will never be easier to find than it is in those early days.

2. Make two copies. Even very young children should be allowed to touch and look at their Life Book on a daily basis, so it’s a good idea to keep an extra copy so you won’t have to fret about stains, dog-eared pages, or photos damaged in moments of anger.

3. Make the Life Book a joint project. Even children as young as two or three can contribute by decorating pages, helping to choose the album itself, and choosing favorite photos to include. Asking your child about her favorite color, favorite animal, etc. and recording these facts in her “special book” will make her feel important and loved. Don’t worry about the book being perfect; it’s more important that your child feel included in making it. Which brings me to my next tip…

4. Make the Life Book easy to maintain. While elaborate scrapbooking may look beautiful, a simple three-ring binder may be the best bet for your child’s Life Book. It’s durable, easy to add pages to, and requires no special tools or expensive materials. Making the Life Book easy to add to is key, as it means that you are less likely to put it off.

5. Don’t overlook small details. The smallest details – like seeing his birth mother’s handwriting or seeing the hat he wore as a newborn – can be very meaningful to your child as he gets older.

6. Don’t be concerned if your child doesn’t want to look at her Life Book. Like all children, adopted children go through different emotional phases and struggle with questions about who they are. It’s normal for children to go through periods of not wanting to look at their Life Book, or even wanting to destroy it. Keep it safe for the day when they are ready for it again, as often happens when they marry or have children of their own.

7. Ask your child’s social worker for help. Your child’s social worker can be a great source of information about your child and his birth parents, as well as photographs. Further, a social worker can be an invaluable resource for advice about how to record sensitive information (such as why he was given up for adoption, the existence of siblings, or past abuse) in an age-appropriate way.

8. Remember your audience. The audience for your child’s Life Book is just one person: Your child. Keep most pages short, colorful, and visually interesting. Focus written memories on the child (“you were wearing a little green hat when I met you”) rather than the parent (“I felt so nervous as we drove to the meeting.”).

Further Reading:
Lifebooks: Creating a Treasure for the Adopted Child by Beth O’Malley, M.Ed.

Before You Were Mine: Discovering Your Adopted Child’s Lifestory by Susan TeBos and Carissa Woodwyk.

Scrapbooking: Capturing Your Child’s Journey Through Life from adoption.com.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Five Tips for Fostering Strong Attachment


There’s a lot of buzz in child-rearing books about attachment, and for good reason. Many reliable scientific studies show that children who are securely attached to their caregivers are healthier, more confident, and more likely to form healthy relationships later in life. The darker side of this is that similar studies show that children who are severely neglected or abused early in life can have psychological and emotional problems that follow them into later life.

What does this mean for adoptive parents? There are many excellent books on attachment for adoptive parents. Here are five tips for forming strong bonds with your adopted child.

1. Remember that it’s not too late. When you read about attachment in infants, it’s easy to leap to the conclusion that a child who didn’t attach in the first few months of life never will. Not so, say scientists. Although early infancy is a key period of attachment, there are many ways that adoptive parents of older children can make up for lost time. Ask your pediatrician for referrals to attachment specialists or check out these resources.

2. Be patient with your child – and yourself. In addition to worrying that their child does not appear attached to them, many parents feel ashamed or frightened because they do not feel the strong bond to their adopted child that they expected to feel. Don’t worry. It’s normal for the attachment process to take time. It’s normal to have mixed emotions as you and your child get to know each other. In fact, it’s normal even for biological parents to have these mixed feelings as they meet their new babies for the first time after birth.

3.Reach out. It’s helpful to read books, ask experts, and see therapists about attaching to your adopted child, but the most important resource may be other parents. Talking to other adoptive parents about their experiences is crucial to get tips, share challenges, and see that you’re not the only one to have struggled with the attachment process.

4. For Infants: Ignore advice not to “spoil” your baby. A generation or two ago, the conventional wisdom was that babies should be fed on a schedule, allowed to “cry it out” at nighttime, and generally not overly coddled. Thanks to technology that actually lets us see how the brain develops, we now know that responding to babies’ cries for attention promptly and lovingly actually helps them to develop healthy minds and bodies. Feed your baby when he is hungry, and respond promptly to his nighttime cries in the beginning (evidence shows that babies can’t benefit from “sleep training” until about five months old, and it may be later for adopted children). It’s impossible to “spoil” a baby with too much attention and cuddling. This is great news to most adoptive parents, who enjoy nothing more than to spend hours rocking, cuddling, gazing at, and singing to their babies. Your instincts are good here – these activities are the very best for your baby’s development and attachment.

5. For school-age kids: Consistency and creativity. Although older children may act tough sometimes, inside they are a lot like babies, watching for clues that you can be counted on. Establishing a routine in your child’s day and sticking to it will help her to feel more secure. Doing activities together like taking a martial arts, swimming, or yoga class is also great idea. Seeing that you like to spend time with her and that you can be counted on to show up consistently every week is a winning combination for your adopted child. Forming an attachment bond with an older child may also require a variety of approaches as you get to know each other. If your child rejects your hugs, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t need physical affection, but she may need it in a different way. Try reading a book close together, doing a puzzle, dancing, giving back rubs, styling or cutting their hair, and other ways of giving positive touch.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

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