Trying to adopt with a psychiatric diagnosis
August 27, 2009 6:08 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible to adopt a child when a spouse has bipolar disorder?

We have two biological children, a three year old girl and a five month old boy, and would like to adopt a third child--not because we couldn't get pregnant again, but because we feel that we could provide a good home to a child who needs one. In fact, that's been our plan since we were engaged--two biokids, anyone after that is adopted.

But in recent communications with international adoption agencies that our friends have used, we've been told that applying would be a waste of our time and money--there's no chance of being approved for adoption because my wife is diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Is that the final word? We can accept it if it is--many couple who want to adopt would be delighted just to have one of the two wonderful kids we are already parenting. But if there's some avenue for adoption, I'd like to pursue it.
posted by Pater Aletheias to Human Relations (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I sincerely hope that's not the final word. Have you discussed this with any domestic adoption agencies? Would that make a difference? Any particular reason you're working with an international agencies? Maybe discussing this with a lawyer who specializes in adoptions is a good next step if you're willing to look domestically.
posted by Toekneesan at 6:39 PM on August 27, 2009

Although we adopted domestically, not internationally, I can give you a few things to consider before you contact an agency.

The adoption process is, at best, a rollercoaster ride of emotions and stress and sleepless nights that culminate in an equally stressful (but hopefully happy) ending of a child suddenly becoming a part of your lives. It's a journey of self-questioning, scrutiny from strangers, worry, doubt, and occasional bursts of frustration.

You both need to be absolutely certain that your wife's bipolar diagnosis is being handled appropriately - is she under the care of a good doctor? Is she stable? If she's taking medications, have they been appropriately managed for the right doses? If "no" on any of those, sort that out before you start the adoption process; for your sake, her sake, and for the sake of the future child(ren) and current kids. See paragraph above about stress and change and emotions.

The agency will absolutely ask about mental illnesses - along with your physical health, your financial health, your support network, your sex life (yes, really), drug use, medications you take, life history, and how you got along with your own mother.. It's an incredibly invasive process.

In that process, they're going to look at how you've handled problems in the past - including your wife's diagnosis. Did you seek appropriate help? Were you open to community supports? Are you open about your difficulties in life? What would you do if there was a new problem? How will you handle the stress of this new child?

If you haven't already sat down to discuss this sort of thing, together, now would be ideal - before you call an agency.

My husband and I have had, at best, "interesting" lives (in the sense of the Chinese curse, mainly) and we worried that some of our experiences and issues would preclude us from adopting. We were repeatedly assured that our handling of those experiences was viewed as a positive thing - particularly because we overcame them and our plans in place to overcome similar issues if needed.

At the time our boys were placed with us, I was on antidepressants and had finished, recently, treatment for anxiety -- our agency asked about my feelings toward the meds (positive, they helped) and what I'd do in the event that my anxiety returned (CBT again, medications if needed, etc.) They considered my depression a non-issue as a result of my honest answers. A bipolar diagnosis wouldn't be much different if it were handled well - ditto any other problem.

Most adults, and most people who want to adopt kids, aren't perfect. They have life history and 'issues' and a good agency is aware of that and focused on how you handle the past and what you'll do in the future.

That said - if an agency is telling you that it's a waste of time, ask why. They're the ones who'll determine if it's "the final word". But there are many agencies, many countries (including your own) that may feel differently - and it's worth keeping an eye open.
posted by VioletU at 6:44 PM on August 27, 2009 [9 favorites]

I have a bit of contact with the international/domestic adoption and child protection agencies where I live---which is not where you live (North Carolina from your profile?) so take this advice with that caveat.

Adoption agencies and statutory authorities are bound to take the emotional and physical health of prospective adoptive parents into account with placements. There's no way to tell if it's the "final word" without putting a specific adoption agency into contact with your wife's doctors, but I'd be surprised if they didn't have quite strict rules about mental health.

Would you consider foster caring? The difference is that while there are an oversupply of parents wanting to permanently adopt, there is a constant demand everywhere for foster parents to care for children at risk of harm and neglect. It's not adoption, but you'd be helping extremely vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:45 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To fill in the picture a little more: she's been diagnosed since 17 (is now 34), and has been doing regular med management and monthly psychiatric check-ups for a long, long time, augmented with counseling when life is getting more stressful. I'd say she's easily in the top 10% of bipolar patients when it comes to managing the situation responsibly. Neither of the agencies I spoke with asked for even that much detail though. Just the diagnosis was enough for them to say no.

Yep, we're currently in North Carolina.

As far as international vs. domestic, I have a preference for international, just because I have been close to two separate domestic adoption situations which became protracted messes when someone screwed up the paperwork along the way and they wound up in court. But if there was a domestic option and no international one, we'd certainly look at it.

And sure, we'd think about foster care--down the road, when our kids are older. But for now, we'd like to figure out if adoption is an option.

Thanks for the feedback so far!
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:53 PM on August 27, 2009

A sister and her husband adopted internationally. They both have bipolar disorder.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:37 PM on August 27, 2009

VioletU has it. Some countries (e.g. China) will disqualify you if you have any history of psychiatric illness. Others are less strict. In either case, the agency should, in the course of the home study, try to determine whether your wife's illness is under control and whether she is capable of being a parent. The fact that you have kids could help; documentation from your wife's psychiatrist/MD will certainly help. If the agency is not willing to help you on this, find another one that will.

She's also correct that there's a separate question you need to answer - are you both ready for this and able to deal with all the ups and downs? That's a separate issue from whether you can get someone to sign all the relevant paperwork. Our adoption path (domestic) was pretty smooth compared to many families, but it was still incredibly stressful and scary at times. It's had an amazing happy ending for us, but there was certainly some drama along the way.
posted by chbrooks at 12:03 AM on August 28, 2009

It depends on the country you are interested in. China, no way. Ethiopia, maybe. I don't know about others.

Are you looking to adopt a healthy infant girl? Because, honestly, these are not the kids who really need homes. There are waiting lists for every country where healthy infant girls are waiting for adoption. And many countries have waiting parents for

If you are interested in adopting an older child, or an infant with special needs, then you will be able to adopt a child who truly needs a home...

I am an adoptive parent, via international adoption, who went into adoption with the same idea as you--why get pregnant where there are children around the world who need parents? But the reality is much, much trickier than this. If you want another baby, have one yourselves; don't adopt.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:28 AM on August 28, 2009

My friend and her spouse, who live in Texas, adopted a healthy infant girl domestically 3 yrs ago. She has diagnosed bipolar disorder, controlled by medication. I don't think the diagnosis or condition was a problem.
posted by mmw at 6:23 AM on August 28, 2009

Another thing that I'll add (I adopted the same kids as VioletU) is if you're looking for babies/infants, then the agencies are much more picky because of the supply/demand ratio. If you open yourself to the option of older children, then the agencies might start courting you; we have a few subsidies in place despite being middle class on the income scale for taking three boys (4,7,10 when they moved in) with nothing "wrong" with them beyond being a sibling group of three non-baby boys. Violet's previously mentioned issues weren't a factor, as well, neither was my estrangement from my parents, and fine cross-crossing of scars from self-injury when I was 20-24ish.

I doubt a mother choosing her kids' future parents would have chosen us (domestic), and similarly a foreign agency likely would have passed us over (we never tried, as we did not want babies). Plus, total out-of-pocket costs for domestic adoption in Ontario was less than $200 for the background checks. I think generally domestic adoption is much more cost effective no matter the locality.

However, one thing that I heard quite often, and I think would be good advice is to not upset the birth order. Which means that if you are going to consider adopting older kids, you might want to wait until your kids are 8 and 5, and then start looking in the 2-5 range, and increase the range as your kids get older.
posted by nobeagle at 6:55 AM on August 28, 2009

As people have commented on up-thread, it can vary by country, by agency within the US, by what kind of adoption you're interested in/willing to do. I have heard that international adoption can actually be harder than domestic for things like this, because some countries set very stringent restrictions on what they'll allow. I can understand your fears about domestic adoption (we ourselves spent 20 months in a custody dispute after adopting our daughter) but if you are set on adoption, you may have better luck domestically.

You can, however, if you're really anxious about certain risks, avoid them. For instance, I know a woman who, after a bad fall-through, told our agency that she was only willing to hear about babies whose birthparents had already surrendered their parental rights; it extended her wait a bit, but helped her avoid the risk of losing another baby. Anyone freaked out by our experience with our daughter's birthfather could choose to only accept a baby whose birthfather is known and has signed off on the adoption--again, it narrows the pool of possible matches, but avoids the risk. You can also choose which state to adopt from--in his book The Kid, Dan Savage mentions that some people choose to adopt from Oregon because Oregon gives birthfathers fewer rights than other states.

I'd recommend you keep researching. There are several big "all about adoption" books available that give a good overview of the whole process, the various options, the risks and benefits of each. If you are determined to adopt, you almost certainly will be able to, but it might not be by following the path you're thinking of now.
posted by not that girl at 10:32 AM on August 28, 2009

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