This has been incredibly frustrating. Maybe some people are ok making major life decisions without having all the information, but I am not. Yet, it seems I have to be, or I will never make a decision. Like I said last time, we’ve been to three agency orientations, and basically for the past three weeks or so, we’ve had new information crop up every day or every other day that has shifted our impressions.
First, we went to IAC in NYC. It was impressive: large room, with a fairly large group (30-40 people?), free pizza and drinks (not that I could have any, but hey…), powerpoint presentation and colorful, bound notebook full of information and statistics. We felt good about it: these were modern people, with modern tools to find us modern birth moms, and they weren’t going to discriminate against us on the basis of our religious non-affiliations. We felt that it would be a good fit because the birth moms who would choose this open, modern agency with such a diverse pool of prospective adoptive parents (I think more than half the folks in the room were either gay/lesbian couples, immigrants, or mixed race couples) would potentially have a lot more in common with us than at a more traditional agency, and we would potentially be able to find a better match with a birth mom who shared some common values with us. Another plus was they were very forthcoming with all their statistics: they had average waiting times broken down by race of adoptive parents (16 months from home study for heterosexual caucasian couple) and detailed racial breakdown information about the babies. These are important to know to know what our chances are of getting a baby with the racial restrictions we specify, if we choose to do so.
There were some weird things that raised some flags: why are so many of the fees up front before any services have been rendered (approximately $20,000 is paid up front at this agency, non-refundable)? This seems to create a bad incentive structure for this agency (lure couples to sign up with them, and then no incentive to actually help the couples find good matches quickly). Also, they have this more ‘bundled’ fee structure where you pay over $20k for a bunch of mixed expenses (and then still have 7-15k of other fees later), but then on the ‘other fees’ section they have each couple pay individually for printing their “dear birth mom” flyers, which is only like $200. They claimed this is because all couples want to print different numbers of flyers, and some couples want to print a bunch and send them out to everyone. Ok, fine, but that’s no excuse. Why are they nickel-and-diming printing fees for flyers? Why not just take an average and fold that into their giant bundled $20k cost, or allow everyone 75 flyers and fold that into the $20k and then have people pay for extras if they want. That is a really weird and suspicious choice, and it raises red flags about what other unexpected expenses might be hiding in there.
Another surprising thing at IAC was that the birth moms (henceforth BMs) have two ways of making contact with you: option 1) the traditional way where they choose the agency, the agency ‘vets’ them and counsels them and shows them the families whose criteria they match, or 2) the new modern Facebook/twittery way where they find our profile online and email or message on the website or even call us before ever contacting the agency. They say this opens doors to more birth moms because more birth moms want the system to look and feel like Facebook, and some birth moms want to find a nice family online first on their own before committing to an agency. Ok, fine, that makes sense in terms of attracting more birth moms, and giving birth moms and prospective adoptive parents (henceforth PAPs) more freedom to make their own choices. But, it also means we could be getting calls or messages from random pregnant women who are just starting to think about adoption, who might not match our criteria, and who have not gone through the agency at all for any kind of verification. This sounds a bit crazy and chaotic, but at least I see the advantage that we would be more involved in the process, and we’d have more say over who we get matched with. At IAC they refer to this as the ‘online dating’ portion of the adoption process for good reason. And at a fully open adoption agency (IAC is fully open: they require at least 1 visit per year after placement), it makes sense that you would need a chance to meet and mutually decide on a relationship with the birth mom: after all, you are deciding on adding a new member to your extended family – it would really be good if you got along, right? Still, sounds a bit scary and emotional, and re-affirms our concern that IAC won’t do that much after they get the $20k.
Overall, however, we were feeling pretty good after the orientation. There were some things to get used to, but most things made sense, and we felt like we ‘belonged’ culturally there, which was one of the things we were most worried about before (that we were too liberal and educated and non-religious for any birth mom to choose us). The counselor who did the orientation seems really competent and sincere. Then a couple days later, I found some terrifying reviews of IAC online basically along the lines of: ‘they take your $20k and then they do nothing for you, and you wait and wait for a baby for years and never get your money back’ Or ‘they never return your calls or emails; they are so overworked and swamped with cases that you don’t get any help or attention during the process’ (these are paraphrases, obviously). On top of that, it sort of hit home slowly that while IAC has been in business for years and years in California (with lots of good reviews at the CA office) and has hundreds of placements each year, all the bad reviews were coming from other offices, and the office in NYC is only a few years old and has no reviews to speak of. So they basically have no experience in New England; all the people at the orientation were from NYC it seemed, and the orientation was clearly aimed at them. It also seemed a bit strange that they had only one main counselor for all adoptive families coming to the NYC office, which also covered all of CT (overload, anyone?).
These things were really confirming our fears, and by the time we went to the Adoptions from the Heart orientation in Glastonbury, CT we were feeling pretty unsure. But, once again after the orientation at AFTH, we were feeling pretty good. Here’s what happened. AFTH seemed completely different. There were only four couples at the orientation, and the orientation was run by the district supervisor, with the social worker who would be in charge of our case sitting in. It was very intimate. AFTH has a similar number of placements per year as IAC (160? or so), but the number of adoptive parents who sign up each year is smaller. Which you would think would indicate that their average time to placement might be even faster, but who knows, since AFTH claims ‘there are no averages’. Clearly they do not understand basic math, but lets get back to that later. AFTH presented themselves as fairly open, but in fact, they are what most places call ‘semi-open’, which means they require non-identifying pictures and letters to be sent between BMs and PAPs once a year through the agency (and once a month for the first six months). By this point we had already gotten pretty used to the idea of an open adoption (although all the other couples at the orientation were shocked and scared of the openness), and semi-open sounded pretty good. The supervisor explained the philosophy as ‘you can always make it more open later, but you can’t un-open it, once it’s open’, which made sense. Given what we’ve read elsewhere that BMs sometimes need some time to grieve apart at first to come to terms with things, and that other times BMs think they will be very involved at first and later disappear, the idea of semi-open with the option to open things later sounded pretty sensible. I think we are still open to more openness as well, but semi-open does seem like the most ‘comfortable’ option for us at this point.
Another big difference at AFTH was that there is no ‘online dating’. We make our dear birth mom letters, and they send the letters to the birth moms who match our criteria. Once a birth mom picks us, we have no say whatsoever. If we decline the match, we are booted out of the agency. Goodbye. The end. Ouch. We may not get to meet the BM before the placement, and in any case, we have no ‘decision’ to make once we do meet her, unlike at IAC, where we mutually choose each other. At AFTH, we have to accept any match they give us that matches our criteria or we’re out. So on the one hand, AFTH is facilitating everything (the communication between BMs and us, and the matching between BMs and us), and on the other hand, we have very little control or involvement in the process. They’re doing more of the work, and we’re more out of the loop. Pros and cons all in one. On the plus side: AFTH has years of experience in our state, the fee structure is pay-as-you-go (e.g. $950 for the application and educational courses, and then $1600 for the home study, $6k to start the matching process, and then $22k only once we have a placement, plus the other fees as they come up), BMs are required to get a medical exam, they have a community of adoptive families in our area that we could become part of.
Ok, now to the weird things. AFTH refuses to provide an average wait time. They say ‘there are no averages’. I’m sorry, but an average is a mathematically well-defined quantity, and it most certainly does exist. They say they don’t want PAPs to think the average wait times are guarantees, and that every family is different. Ok, fine, so what they need to do is educate their PAPs about what average means, and educate themselves on what average means (and, ideally, educate themselves and their PAPs on what variance means). They are telling two PhDs who work with statistical models for a living that there are no averages, and this is infuriating. What are they trying to hide? We send a follow-up email with a number of questions, one of which re-iterated this question, stating explicitly that we understand this is no guarantee and that there is a lot of variation. We got exactly the same reply: there are no averages. Every other agency gives their average wait times up front – what’s the deal? This secrecy is really making me nervous. All they will say is that 70% of their couples have been with them less than a year, and the longest-waiting couple right now is around 2 years. Of course all this means is that most of their couples signed up recently, and says absolutely nothing about how long we might expect to wait for a placement. I want to write them to give them a piece of my mind and a basic statistics lesson, but of course I can’t because I need them to be on my side if we do choose them. They were also scarily sloppy with their other statistics: on their statistics info sheet, they break down placements into caucasian, african american, and bi-racial. No where does it say that caucasian actually includes hispanic and asian (asian? hello?), and that bi-racial is any mixture of african american. This sloppiness and apparent deceptiveness makes me very nervous. We also asked them about alcohol and drug use by their birth moms, and got a similarly evasive yet scary answer: the majority of their birth moms have been exposed to some sort of substance. Ok, so because they are unwilling to provide us with information, we at this point have no idea what the chances are of getting a caucasian (if this is what we decide), substance-free baby from them, but it doesn’t seem to be so high.
OK, last one is easy. Wide Horizons has been crossed off the list. Their domestic adoption program seems to be dying, and they explicitly said that if we want a substance-free, caucasian baby, we should look elsewhere. As I mentioned, I’m not sure exactly how restrictive we want to be yet, but knowing that a caucasian, substance-free baby is even a plausible possibility that doesn’t take 10 years to wait for would be nice to know.
What do you think? Am I being overly harsh on AFTH? Or, does the non-refundable 20k up front for IAC with no guarantees sound scarier? It’s not like I actually think either agency is actually a bunch of scam artists or anything, but these things are making me nervous. Oh, and did I forgot to mention, we basically have no other choices. We need to get a home study done by an agency licensed in our state, and these are the three biggest and least discriminatory in our state. AFTH seems like a safe bet since doing the home study will only be $950 + $1600 (and then we could potentially go to another agency in another state if we were unhappy with them), whereas with IAC it’s all or nothing.