By Kathleen Kingsbury
NEW YORK, Jan 15 (Reuters) - When Mitch and Susan Glavas began the domestic adoption process in 2010, there was one expense they weren't anticipating: the marketing budget.
The couple's adoption agency initially suggested that they build a website to introduce themselves to birth parents. But they hesitated -- until an expected six- to 12-month wait for a baby grew longer and longer.
Now 21 months into the process, the Glavas' website (www.glavasadopt.com) is part of a broader online effort to connect with birth families that includes Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, a blog and Internet advertising. "A longer wait requires more resources," says Susan, 44, a manager for her family's tech support business in Orange County, California.
International adoptions, once a popular route for many American families, have declined dramatically in recent years as foreign governments have tightened adoption regulations, or, as in the case of Russia in late December, banned them altogether. Adoptive parents, especially those seeking newborns, are turning to domestic options instead, but they're finding stiff competition, long wait times and costs up to $40,000, experts say.
The National Council For Adoption reports a steady decline in the number of babies put up for adoption over the past several decades. Some 18,078 infants were adopted in 2007, the last time a count was reported. Nearly all were private adoptions.
"There's a shortage of African-American couples, so they're usually matched the fastest," says Joan Jaeger, president of outreach at The Cradle, a non-profit adoption agency in Evanston, Illinois. Heterosexual and same-gender couples generally have similar wait times, while single or older parents may wait longer.
In some ways, waiting is the easy part. Prospective parents must first hire an agency or adoption attorney, undergo background checks, physicals and home studies, and determine how they will pay for it all.
More pregnant women are bypassing agencies altogether and finding new families for their babies online, according to a new study by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national nonprofit (). Web searches and online advertising yield hundreds of sites promising quick matches, lower fees and less red tape. But the report found that online adoption agencies charge more than brick-and-mortar ones.
Adam Pertman, the Adoption Institute's executive director, advises families to be wary. "The obvious temptation is to choose the quicker route," Pertman says, noting many adoptive families have already been dealing with years of infertility. "But there is no way to do an adoption ethically and thoughtfully in a hurry."
In the age of Facebook and Google, adoptive families must also accept that most domestic adoptions will be open adoptions -- in which contact between a child and his birth parents continues after the adoption is finalized. A recent survey of 100 infant adoption programs found only 5 percent were fully closed, while 55 percent were fully opened and 40 percent allowed information to be shared through the agency.
That should not dissuade would-be parents. "Most couples come in thinking they want a closed adoption but nearly all are later grateful they have that connection to the birth family," The Cradle's Jaeger says. While adoption laws vary widely state-by-state, once an adoption is finalized, biological families have no legal means to take a child back, she adds.
Reputable agencies are upfront about fees. The Cradle, for example, charges adopting families $33,000. But it can be hard to predict medical expenses for infant and mother, which generally need to be paid out-of-pocket.
Low-income families may qualify for adoption grants, and some financial institutions now offer loans to fund adoptions
California-based American Christian Credit Union, for example, offers home-equity loans for adoptions, as well as a low interest rate Visa card with no annual fee.
Longer wait times are also bring hidden costs. After spending all their savings, Connecticut couple Christa and Brandon Singleton reluctantly called off their adoption search this fall when faced with having to renew their home study, which generally costs about $2,000. "We were too discouraged to spend more money," says Christa, who was laid off in July.
Then the unexpected happened - they were matched to a little girl, born Jan. 5. The Singletons scrambled to come up with rest of the cash, borrowing against Brandon's 401(k) and tightening their household budget. All in all, the adoption will cost $27,000.
They will recoup some of that expense through the federal adoption tax credit, which Congress permanently extended through its recent "fiscal cliff" deal. Families earning under $150,000 qualify for the full $10,000 credit, which phases out for higher incomes.
The Singletons will also receive help from Brandon's employer, the U.S. military.
A 2009 survey by human-resources consultancy Hewitt Associates found that more than half of the 940 large employers surveyed offer some type of adoption assistance. The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption produces an annual list of the best workplaces for adoption on its website ().
The foster care system is another alternative. "If a family is willing to take an older child or (a group of siblings), that opens up a lot more possibilities," says Rita Sorenson, executive director of the Dave Thomas Foundation.
About 104,000 children in the foster care system were waiting to be adopted as of July 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
States, the legal guardians of children in foster care, cover agency and other placement fees, so out-of-pocket costs for families can range from nothing to $2,500, Sorenson estimates, depending on whether a family hires its own attorney.
Because many foster children have special needs, which can range from a deceased parent to serious medical conditions, they may also qualify for state or federal subsidies that follow them until age 18.
"In an ideal world, every family would concurrently be thinking about foster care, international and private adoptions as viable options," says Sorenson.